Scientists are working on a new space telescope that could provide images up to 1,000 times sharper than those from the iconic Hubble.
The Aragoscope, named after French scientist Francois Arago, is a project at the University of Colorado Boulder. The designers believe that the new technology could create higher resolution images at a much lower cost by replacing outdated, heavy components with lightweight materials.
"Traditionally, space telescopes have essentially been monolithic pieces of glass like the Hubble Space Telescope," said CU-Boulder doctoral student Anthony Harness of the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences, who is working on the project. "But the heavier the space telescope, the more expensive the cost of the launch."
Still, it won't be easy to better the exploits of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Launched almost 25 years ago, its instruments were still operating in near flawless fashion after a fifth and final shuttle service mission last year. While one of its six stabilizing gyroscopes has failed, project managers are optimistic the observatory will be able to operate through the end of the decade, wrapping up 30 years at the apex of astronomy.
If forecasts hold up, NASA will be able to use Hubble in concert with its successor, the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, giving astronomers a golden opportunity to compare Hubble's visible-light images with Webb's deep infrared views to better understand the structure and evolution of the early universe.
But University of Colorado professor Webster Cash insists they can go one better than the Hubble with their unusual approach. The drive, of course, is to see further and deeper in space and possibly one day find that Earth-like planet out there somewhere in a distant universe.
"Hubble is 2.4 meters in diameter and designed in the 1970s. We are talking 21st century stuff here," Cash told CBS News.
"The size of Hubble was limited by the space shuttle that took it to orbit," he said. "We want a telescope that is deployable like the James Webb except we want it bigger. We are looking for ways to make a telescope with a very wide diameter which gives us that high resolution. The problem is that it gets very heavy as the diameter gets larger unless you make it very thin. The Aragoscope has very thin design but still maintains the optical quality."
The Aragoscope consists of an orbiting space telescope with a half-mile-wide opaque disk in front of it. The device looks like a giant umbrella in space.
Cash said diffracted light waves from a target star or other space object would bend around the edges of the disk and converge in a central point. That light would then be fed into the orbiting telescope to provide high-resolution images.
The opaque space disk would be made of a strong, dark, plastic-like material (think Hefty bag) that could be launched in a compressed fashion like a parachute, and then unfurled in orbit. The space shield would be tethered to the telescope at distances from tens to hundreds of miles depending on the size of the disk, said Harness.
The Aragoscope was one of 12 proposals that got $100,000 in June as part of a NASA's Innovative Advanced Concept program which looks to turn science fiction into reality. Other projects that received funding included an orbiting device to capture tumbling asteroids and a robotic submarine to explore methane lakes on Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.
The next challenge for Cash and his team will come this summer when NASA chooses six projects to get Phase II funding of $500,000 over two years.
Cash has been here before. He received similar support from NASA in 2008 to fund a concept that featured a telescope and a giant, daisy-shaped "starshade" that would block light from a parent star and let light from its planets to leak around the edges, allowing the team to image them.
"Quite frankly, our New Worlds starshade project overlaps with the architecture we want to use for the Aragoscope, so we feel we are in pretty good shape going into Phase Two," Cash said in a statement. "The Aragoscope would be parked in a geostationary orbit 25,000 miles high that follows Earth's rotation, making it appear motionless from the ground."
Cash and Harness said they hope to conduct an astronomical demonstration of the Aragoscope concept in the lab, using a 1-meter disk placed several meters from a telescope. Coupled with that, they plant to test the starshade concept by fixing a space disk on a mountaintop and attaching a telescope on a hovering aircraft in order to image Alpha Centauri, a binary star system that appears as the third brightest star in the sky.