Tomorrow's Space Telescopes: Bigger and Better

BALTIMORE - Astronomers always want bigger,better telescopes and spacecraft to get the best information they can about theuniverse.

And despitefederal pocketbook pinching—level funding devalued by rising inflation—new andrelatively affordable technologies to squeeze the most out of spacecraft arejust around the corner, said Dennis Ebbets, a spokesperson for Ball Aerospacein Boulder, Colo., here at the Space Telescope Science Institute's Astrophysics2020 meeting at Johns Hopkins University this week.

Althoughthe bill for the still-in-development James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may topmore than$1 billion, Ebbets noted the observatory is a proof-of-concept for thefuture. Engineers intend to squeeze the final 21-foot (6.5-meter) diameterobservatory into an Ariane 5 rocket payload space, which tops out in diameterat less than 18 feet (5.4 meters).

"It'svery impressive," Ebbets said of theJWST prototype's ability to fold up into a tight space. "Thetechnologies exist or can exist for getting bigger [telescope] apertures intomodest launch vehicles."

Speedierspace downloads

As biggertelescopes with more sensitive light-gathering sensors launch into space,Ebbets said, they'll have to handle beaming that data back to Earth moreefficiently.

"We'renot getting every pixel of data back from telescopes right now," he saidof most space observatories' on-board data processing systems.

The idea issimilar to converting a large-image format to a smaller file size by a factorof 10. During the compression process, some of the image data is inevitablylost.

Sendingtelescope data back to astronomers on the ground at about 2.5 Gigabits persecond—a DVD-worth of data in a few seconds—is now possible, Ebbets said, usinglaser-based communication technology called LaserCom. Such a speed could cutspacecraft weight, make real-time observations possible and circumventcompression problems as telescope data would not need to be processed intosmaller packages before shipment to Earth.

"I canimagine having Marsmissions or other deep-space missions sending data back to Earth in verylarge data packages," he said.


Ebbets alsonoted that automatingspacecraft repair, refueling and other tasks will help squeeze the valueout of unmanned missions by eliminating the expense of humans in space.

One way todo that is with instruments that grant better "machine vision" forautomated yet delicate on-orbit tasks such as docking.

"Thesethings actually do exist," Ebbets said of new light detection and ranging(LIDAR) systems his company has designed. The device's 3-D laser technologyhelps a spacecraft gauge its distance from another object such as an asteroidor other probe—precise within under an inch (2 centimeters).

"Theseallow for autonomous rendezvous and docking in space, and allow two spacecraftto operate in close proximity to each other," he said. "LIDAR couldalso be used for hazard avoidance during lunar or Mars missions."

As suchtechnologies such as LaserCom and LIDAR mature and make their way onto newspacecraft, Ebbets said, making the most of increasingly tight funding willcontinue to push the development of spaceflight technologies.

"Weall want to get the most and best science out of the budgets we haveavailable," Ebbets said. "We're now seeing less costly things couldbe made much more capable."

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Former contributor

Dave Mosher is currently a public relations executive at AST SpaceMobile, which aims to bring mobile broadband internet access to the half of humanity that currently lacks it. Before joining AST SpaceMobile, he was a senior correspondent at Insider and the online director at Popular Science. He has written for several news outlets in addition to Live Science and, including:, National Geographic News, Scientific American, Simons Foundation and Discover Magazine.