Space Technology

In The Near Future Robots Will Assemble Large Telescopes in Space

space telescope

A new age of telescopes may soon be upon us in the form of robot-assembled modular telescopes in outer space. This new concept will allow astronomers to gaze even further into deep space. It’s a brand-new theory that is being welcomed with open arms. Until now, building a large telescope in space would have been a problem since it would be too fatiguing for astronauts.

On Earth, atmospheric effects limit the use of large telescopes since they must be fixed in one location. In space, these limits aren’t present but there are other issues to deal with such as mass capacity and the volume of the launch vehicle. If these problems were addressed through design modifications, the components of the telescope could be incrementally launched. In this scenario, the deployment and design of huge telescopes in space would be entirely possible.

This design was documented by Nicolas Lee and his associates, outlining a new concept of assembling a space modular telescope with a robot. Their main concern and focus dealt primarily with problems linked to astronaut fatigue. The goal at hand now is to deal with the most important technical challenges that come up with this type of robotic architecture. Future studies will need to address a specific science driver that can assemble telescopes robotically.

In order to do this, Lee along with his colleagues, propose the use of a modularly structured mirror and a robot that would be able to build the telescope in space. As well, servicing on an ongoing basis would need to be considered.

modular spacetelescope
CAD render showing the concept of an assembly robot deploying a truss module. Folded truss modules are stored in a cargo housing unit shown docked to the central hub.
(Image Credit: Lee et al. Architecture for in-space robotic assembly of a modular space telescope / JATIS )

Advanced technologies need to be developed in order to make both the assembly and the operation of the space telescope feasible. Once this has been achieved, the door would be open to a number of new space technologies.

According to Harley Thronson, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center senior scientist working with Advanced Astrophysics Concepts, a number of various potential applications would also be possible. He notes that telescopes that are currently ground-based can be used for decades by astronomers. This is possible as well out in space as long as there are available astronauts. He uses the Hubble Space Telescope as a perfect example.

Concept of mirror and module assembly. (Image Credit: Lee et al. Architecture for in-space robotic assembly of a modular space telescope. Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems)

If it is possible to develop a robotic system that can not only assemble a space telescope, but have the ability to upgrade and repair it in the future, a number of space telescopes could be built. The sky’s the limit in terms of how large they could be.

The Robotically Assembled Modular Space Telescope (RAMST) is fully described by Nicolas Lee and his partners at the California Institute of Technology and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in an article published in the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems  titled “Architecture for in-space robotic assembly of a modular space telescope”.