UA science news releases


Jan. 12, 2000

Workshop web site TUCSON, Ariz. -- About 60 scientists and engineers will meet in Tucson next week for a brainstorming workshop on how to design enormous, affordably priced space telescopes needed to see sharp, detailed, direct views of Earth-like planets circling nearby stars.

"When we look at the generation of space telescopes beyond the Next Generation Space Telescope, we no longer have guidelines," said Nick Woolf of the University of Arizona Steward Observatory.
Building, operating and servicing the 2.6-meter (8 and 1/2-foot) Hubble Space Telescope has cost an estimated $3 billion, Woolf noted. The Next Generation Space Telescope, planned for launch in 2008, will be an 8-meter (26-foot) telescope that likely will cost a third as much.
The Hubble Space Telescope is basically the 100-year-old Mount Wilson telescope placed in space, Woolf and other UA astronomers noted in a recent, successful grant proposal to further develop their idea for flat membrane space optics.

"Free from heat, wind and distortion of our atmosphere, and set free from the ever-turning platform of the Earth's surface, telescopes in space can take wing," they wrote. Future space telescopes "can grow to huge size without hindrance, and be made with the lightest of gossamer structures."

Radically larger and sharper-sighted space telescopes are needed to search other solar systems for Earth-like worlds suitable for life, Woolf said. Such 21st-century space telescopes will use very large, ultra lightweight "gossamer" optics.

"If we could make a Gossamer Telescope 100 meters(328-feet) across yet launch it with a rocket similar to the rocket that will launch the Next Generation Space Telescope, it will need to weigh as little as a tenth of a kilogram, or about 3 and 1/2 ounces, per square meter," Woolf said. "That ultra lightweight would smash the NGST goal by a factor of 150. We do not know if that is possible, but if such large telescopes are much heavier, we will not be able to afford them.

"We see a future in which we will want to study Earth-like planets in great detail, and for such studies even a single 100-meter telescope will not be enough," Woolf added. "How can we afford such enormous space telescopes? How can we make them? How can we test them before launching them? " These questions are major issues for NASA's ambitious Origins program and topics for next week's workshop.

Woolf and James Bilbro of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., organized the Jan. 17 - 20 Gossamer Optics Workshop with funding from NASA, which currently supports research in this field under a special Gossamer Optics initiative. The conference will be held at the Plaza Hotel and Conference Center, 1900 E. Speedway. Participants include researchers from several NASA centers, military and government national laboratories and industry. Aden Meinel is also a participant. Meinel, an optician and astronomer after whom the UA Optical Sciences Center building is named, is former director of Kitt Peak National Observatory, former director of the Steward Observatory and founder and former director of the UA Optical Sciences Center.

The UA team working to develop their concept for a flat membrane space telescope include Woolf, Roger Angel, director of the UA Steward Observatory Mirror Lab, Jim Burge, William Hoffmann and Steward Observatory Director Peter Strittmatter. UA work on gossamer optics is currently funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts, Woolf said, and may expand with support from the NASA Cross-Enterprise Technology Development Program.

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