Instead, with its “liquid telescope” concept, one only needs to run a frame structure such as an umbrella-shaped satellite dish and a reservoir of mirror liquid such as gallium alloys and ionic liquids. Once started, fluid will be injected into the frame. In space, drops stick together due to surface tension, and the annoying force of gravity does not interfere or distort their shape. This will result in an incredibly smooth mirror without the need for mechanical processes such as grinding and polishing that are used for traditional glass mirrors. It will then be attached to the other components of the telescope using an automated process.
Through tests on an airplane and at the International Space Station, his team has already learned how to make lenses from liquid polymers and has determined that the volume of the liquid determines the degree of magnification. With NIAC funding, they will prepare for the next step: testing a small liquid mirror in space later this decade. Their goal is to eventually design a 50-meter mirror, but because the technology is scalable, Balaban says the same physical principles can be used to create a mirror. kilometers wide. JWST’s large mirror makes it one of the most sensitive telescopes ever built, but continued progress may require building large mirrors with this new method, he says.
Zachary Cordero, an MIT astronautics researcher, is leading another new project to develop a manufacturing technology in space called bending. It involves bending a single strand of wire at specific knots and angles, then adding connections to create a rigid structure. Cordero and his team are working on a specific application: designing a high-orbiting satellite reflector that could track storms and precipitation by measuring changes in atmospheric humidity.
As is the case with several other winners, his proposal aims to build truly large objects in space, despite the size and weight restrictions associated with rocket flight. “With conventional reflectors, the more you make these things, the worse the surface accuracy, and eventually they become almost unusable. How to make reflectors of a hundred-meter or kilometer scale in space has been talked about for decades, he says. With their process, it is possible to launch enough material for a 100-meter dish on a single rocket, he says.
The other 14 winners include: a proposal to deploy a seaplane to fly on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and one for a heated probe to penetrate the ocean of its neighbor, Enceladus, which is surrounded by a thick outer layer of ice that behaves like rock thanks to sub-zero temperatures.
While some of these projects fail, the program helps NASA test the limits of what’s possible, LaPoint says: “If a project fails, it’s still good for us. If it works, it could change NASA’s future missions.”