Sports - Air Force

Aug 30, 2012 2:25 AM by Andy Koen

Academy researchers test thermos-sized telescope

A handful of researchers from the US Air Force Academy successfully tested a miniature telescope in zero gravity on Sunday while flying above the skies near Houston.

The FalconSAT-7 promises to expand spaced based imagery at a fraction of the size of traditional telescopes by making use of their patented photon sieve technology.

The entire satellite is roughly the size of a thermos and was engineered at the Academy's Laser and Optics Research Center.

"The photon sieve is a thin membrane with of billions of tiny holes, each of which causes diffraction," explains Dr. Geoff McHarg, director of the Academy's Space Physics and Atmospheric Research Center. "The holes are cleverly arranged to add up correctly to make an image."

The photon sieve membrane is very thin, similar to plastic wrap. The design allows the 10 inch diameter "lens" to be rolled up and stowed inside the spacecraft during the launch. When the satellite reaches orbit, three arms spring out suspending the membrane in place.

"If we can demonstrate that this works, use of a photon sieve opens up the possibility of putting larger telescopes on small satellites," said McHarg. "This is critical for both NASA and the DoD because the resolution of a telescope is dictated by the size of the primary optic, traditional space-based telescope optics are limited to the size of the host spacecraft."

He says the Hubble Space Telescope is the size it is because it had to fit inside the Space Shuttle. NASA would have made a larger Hubble if they would have had a larger spacecraft to launch it.

For the test, McHarg joined Cadet 1st Class Heather Nelson, 2nd Lt. Samantha Latch, Mr. Trey Quiller and Dr. Michael Dearborn aboard NASA's Reduced Gravity Research Program. The laboratory is installed in the cargo hold of a Boeing 727 that flies in a series of parabolic arcs that produce periods of weightlessness.

"It was as amazing as I had hoped it would be. I literally couldn't stop smiling. I am grinning ear to ear," said cadet Nelson. "Everyone I've been telling is super jealous and tells me that I got the coolest research project."

The satellite will become the world's first space-based membrane telescope and will capture images of the sun. A video of the test can be seen here.

FalconSAT-7 is a collaboration between National Reconnaissance Office, Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Air Force Institute of Technology, NASA, MMA Design and the Air Force Research Laboratory, and is slated for launch in 2014.

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