Tag Archives: space telescopes

Centauri Dreams: To Build the Ultimate Telescope

Paul Gilster posts:

In interstellar terms, a ‘fast’ mission is one that is measured in decades rather than millennia. Say for the sake of argument that we achieve this capability some time within the next 200 years. Can you imagine where we’ll be in terms of telescope technology by that time? It’s an intriguing question, because telescopes capable of not just imaging exoplanets but seeing them in great detail would allow us to choose our destinations wisely even while giving us voluminous data on the myriad worlds we choose not to visit. Will they also reduce our urge to make the trip?

Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin described the effects of a telescope something like this back in 1999 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Although he didn’t have a specific telescope technology in mind, he was sure that by the mid-point of the 21st Century, we would be seeing exoplanets up close, an educational opportunity unlike any ever offered. Goldin’s classroom of this future era is one I’d like to visit, if his description is anywhere near the truth:

“When you look on the walls, you see a dozen maps detailing the features of Earth-like planets orbiting neighboring stars. Schoolchildren can study the geography, oceans, and continents of other planets and imagine their exotic environments, just as we studied the Earth and wondered about exotic sounding places like Banghok and Istanbul … or, in my case growing up in the Bronx, exotic far-away places like Brooklyn.”

Webster Cash, an astronomer whose Aragoscope concept recently won a Phase I award from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program (see ‘Aragoscope’ Offers High Resolution Optics in Space), has also been deeply involved in starshades, in which a large occulter works with a telescope-bearing spacecraft tens of thousands of kilometers away. With the occulter blocking light from the parent star, direct imaging of exoplanets down to Earth size and below becomes possible, allowing us to make spectroscopic analyses of their atmospheres. Pool data from fifty such systems using interferometry and spectacular close-up images may one day be possible.


Image: The basic occulter concept, with telescope trailing the occulter and using it to separate planet light from the light of the parent star. Credit: Webster Cash.

Have a look at Cash’s New Worlds pages at the University of Colorado for more. And imagine what we might do with the ability to look at an exoplanet through a view as close as a hundred kilometers, studying its oceans and continents, its weather systems, the patterns of its vegetation and, who knows, its city lights. Our one limitation would be the orbital inclination of the planet, which would prevent us from mapping every area on the surface, but given the benefits, this seems like a small issue. We would have achieved what Dan Goldin described.

Seth Shostak, whose ideas we looked at yesterday in the context of SETI and political will, has also recently written on what large — maybe I should say ‘extreme’ — telescopes can do for us. In Forget Space Travel: Build This Telescope, which ran in the Huffington Post, Shostak talks about a telescope that could map exoplanets with the same kind of detail you get with Google Earth. To study planets within 100 light years, the instrument would require capabilities that outstrip those of Cash’s cluster of interferometrically communicating space telescopes:

At 100 light-years, something the size of a Honda Accord — which I propose as a standard imaging test object — subtends an angle of a half-trillionth of a second of arc. In case that number doesn’t speak to you, it’s roughly the apparent size of a cell nucleus on Pluto, as viewed from Earth.

You will not be stunned to hear that resolving something that minuscule requires a telescope with a honking size. At ordinary optical wavelengths, “honking” works out to a mirror 100 million miles across. You could nicely fit a reflector that large between the orbits of Mercury and Mars. Big, yes, but it would permit you to examine exoplanets in incredible detail.

Or, of course, you can do what Shostak is really getting at, which is to use interferometry to pool data from thousands of small mirrors in space spread out over 100 million miles, an array of the sort we are already building for radio observations and learning how to improve for optical and infrared work on Earth. Shostak discusses a system like this, which again is conceivable within the time-frame we are talking about for developing an actual interstellar probe, as a way to vanquish what he calls ‘the tyranny of distance.’ And, he adds, ‘You can forget deep space probes.’

I doubt we would do that, however, because we can hope that among the many worlds such a space-based array would reveal to us would be some that fire our imaginations and demand much closer study. The impulse to send robotic if not human crews will doubtless be fired by many of the exotic scenes we will observe. I wouldn’t consider this mammoth space array our only way of interacting with the galaxy, then, but an indispensable adjunct to our expansion into it.

Of course Shostak takes the long, sensor derived view of exploring the Universe, his life’s work is radio telescopes.

Gilster is correct that interferometry will be an adjunct to sending robotic probes to distant interstellar worlds, you can’t make money by just gawking at places.

Or can you? 

Original post.

NASA releases more gifted NRO telescope details

As the title implies, NASA released more info concerning its “gift” of obsolete telescope parts from the NRO.

To me, it just seems to me just standard government FIOA fare, mainstream script reading that gives the right amount of denial and hiding behind the moniker of “national security”:

NASA has released more information about the two space telescopes, held in storage, that it announced last week it had received from the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

A painter freshens up the NASA logo that adorns NASA Glenn Research Center’s Flight Research Building.

The news raised lots of questions among space-minded folks. In an effort to get a few more answers, USA TODAY has acquired the question-and-answer sheet provided to NASA Public Affairs folks last week to answer queries about the gift scopes.

Here ’tis:

Exactly what property was transferred?

The NRO transferred to NASA some space qualified optical systems hardware that was residual from previous development work.

What hardware was transferred?

The equipment consists of elements that with some work could make: two telescopes with support structure and a protective light baffle and other miscellaneous spares along with the associated documentation.

What are the technical specifications of the hardware?

Technologies include Exelis lightweight mirror, advanced structures, patented hybrid laminate technologies, and Hexcel/Exelis co-developed cyanate siloxane low moisture resin technology. Additional technical details include:

– 2.4 m, f/8 with <20% Obstructed Aperture

– Field of View: 1.6 arc min, as a Cassegrain

– Wavefront Quality: <60 nm, rms

– Stable, f/1.2, Lightweight ULE primary Mirror

– Stable, Low CTE Composite and Invar Structures

– Actuated Secondary Mirror Positioning

– 1,700 kg mass, including Telescope and Outer Thermal Barrel

– 2 Flight Units Available, with Limited Parts for 3rd

Where is the equipment located?

The equipment is housed at the Excelis Division of ITT in Rochester, NY.

‘Who has direct control of the hardware?

The ownership of the equipment is managed by the J at Propulsion Laboratory for NASA HQ under our master contract with them.

Where is the Program/Project Office ta be located?

For now, the Program Office has not been designated for use of this equipment. The activities are being managed directly by NASA HQ using an interim Project Element at JPL for early study activities. A decision on Where a potential Project office will be established depends on the outcome of study activities to determine the best scientific utility of any potential mission using the equipment. Those studies will be guided by the community inputs based on the Decadal report, NWNH (New Worlds, New Horizons) and consultation with our science advisory structure.

Why did the NRO give this material to NASA?’

The NRO determined that the equipment was not suitable for future intelligence missions.

What is the value of the equipment being transferred?

The value of the equipment is in the avoided cost to a potential NASA mission that could use it. Typically it could cost between $100M to $300 (million) to procure this level of flight hardware. The NRO estimates the cost of the hardware at approximately $275M.

Seriously, What is it worth’?

The equipment as recently transferred has a book value of around $75M. That value is not to be construed as the investment expenditure, but the residual value as determined by contract elements.

What is NASA going to do with the Equipment?

NASA is looking into several missions and scientific investigations Within the Astrophysics Division of the Science Mission Directorate. Until studies are complete, it is sufficient to say that there are areas of Dark Energy, exoplanets and traditional astrophysics that can make good use of the equipment.

What happens if NASA can’t afford to use the equipment? Is there a large cost to NASA for someone else’s left-0vers’?

The cost to the nation is negligible and would be borne by the country at any case. For NASA, the cost really involves minimal storage costs until we determine that we can use it. If the equipment can’t be used, it can be disposed of easily and at minimum cost. (Abandon in place is the usual least cost method)

If the material is at a specific contractor, does that mean that contractor has a lock on work with the equipment?

While it is easier to imagine using the assets of the organizations that developed the equipment, NASA is taking control of the design materials and tooling such that we could use our own internal facilities or those of other contractors for work as best fits the acquisition strategy and best interests of the US Government.

Are there other organizations involved with this activity’?

NASA is discussing potential collaborations with other government agencies the possibility of collaborative efforts in order to keep the overall cost of a potential mission as low as possible consistent with the science goals eventually established. As WC develop our concepts further. there will be opportunities for others to join our effort as well as potential for foreign partners to express an interest. For now, there no agreements in place with other organizations.

Who built the hardware? When was this hardware developed?

Exelis (ITT nee KODAK) developed and built the hardware between the late 1990s and early 2000s.

What other subcontractors or government agencies were involved in developing or building the hardware?

Numerous subcontractors, vendors, and parts suppliers contributed. NRO was the only government agency involved.

How long has the hardware been in storage? Are other items in storage, if so, what?

Due to classification or policy guidance, we cannot reveal how long the hardware has been in storage. The NRO stores many components from various programs for spare parts, reuse, design studies, anomaly resolution, and historical preservation. Due to classification or policy guidance, We cannot reveal the specifics of the other items in storage or their locations.

What NRO program produced the transferred hardware?

Due to classification or policy guidance, we cannot discuss the program office or directorate that produced the hardware.

Is this XXX program’s technology and/or hardware?

Due to security or policy guidance, we cannot discuss the program or directorate that produced the hardware.

Did NRO, ITT, or another organization remove anything from the hardware; of so, what was removed?

Yes, Exelis removed some classified components added to the telescope assembly after its completion that were not germane to NASA’s space science missions. We cannot discuss these components or what they were used for, as they are classified

What happened to the contract?

The contract ended and the hardware has been in storage since that time. Due to security and policy guidance, we cannot discuss when or why the contract ended

What will NASA use the hardware for once the transfer is complete?

NASA is studying the use of this hardware for potential future science applications.

How did NASA learn about the NRO technology? Did NRO approach NASA, or did NASA approach the the NRO?

The NRO made NASA aware of the existence of this hardware; NRO was seeking a suitable disposition of this flight-qualified hardware.

Does NRO do other classified business with NASA?

This hardware transfer is not classified and does not imply NASA does classified work.

NASA spying on the American public or adversaries?

No. The NASA budgets and programs are public information. NASA has a wide portfolio of Earth and Space Science programs that study the universe in which we live.

How is NRO benefiting from this transfer of hardware?

The NRO is not benefiting from this transfer. As a good steward of government resources, NRO sought a new use for existing hardware assets no longer in use and approached NASA.

How is this hardware similar to the Hubble Space Telescope?

It is approximately the same size as Hubble but uses newer, much lighter, mirror and structure technology.

Can the press take photos of the hardware? If not, will NRO/NASA provide photos?

At NRO’s request, NASA will only provide photos of the hardware after its integration; there will be no photos of the transferred hardware alone.

Why does the hardware no longer have intelligence collection uses?

This hardware, developed in the late 1990s, does not fit within the current intelligence architecture or meet future mission requirements.

Hats off to the Freedom-of-Information-Act (FOIA) Office at NASA headquarters, which speedily delivered this information to the public.

The NASA Public Affairs office last week denied a request for the document, claiming it was an internal document.

I’m not impressed. Whether NASA uses these obsolete NRO telescope parts is contingent on future NASA budgets, or perhaps monetary “gifts” from private industry.

I think these parts will be kept in storage forever, not used at all.

It’s cheaper.


Close Shaves and Alien Volcanoes

Did you hear of the close shave we had with an asteroid yesterday? (The asteroid is the streak)

Check this out from Wired:

When asteroid 2010 RX30 zipped past Earth early Wednesday, observers at the Remanzacco Observatory in Italy were ready. At 12:45 a.m. Mountain time, amateur astronomers Ernesto Guido and Giovanni Sostero remotely controlled a 0.25-meter telescope in Mayhill, New Mexico, through the Global Remote Astronomy Telescope Network. They got four separate exposures of 30 seconds each and stitched them together to make this animation.

At its closest approach, 2010 RX30 was about 154,100 miles from Earth, or 60 percent the distance between the Earth and the moon.

Another asteroid, 2010 RF12, swung past Earth at a distance of 49,000 miles (20 percent the Earth-moon distance) at 5:12 p.m. EDT (0012 UT Thursday). Check back for more photos of these cosmic interlopers in action.

Wow. Maybe we do need those asteroid missions the Obamanator is proposing for NASA, eh?

Close-Shave Asteroid Caught on Camera


From asteroids to volcanoes on alien worlds, can it get any better than that?:

Volcanoes display the awesome power of Nature like few other events. Earlier this year, ash from an Icelandic volcano disrupted air travel throughout much of northern Europe. Yet this recent eruption pales next to the fury of Jupiter’s moon Io, the most volcanic body in our solar system.

Now that astronomers are finding rocky worlds orbiting distant stars, they’re asking the next logical questions: Do any of those worlds have volcanoes? And if so, could we detect them? Work by theorists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggests that the answer to the latter is a qualified “Yes.”

“You would need something truly earthshaking, an eruption that dumped a lot of gases into the atmosphere,” said Smithsonian astronomer Lisa Kaltenegger. “Using the James Webb Space Telescope, we could spot an eruption 10 to 100 times the size of Pinatubo for the closest stars,” she added.

Astronomers are decades away from being able to image the surface of an alien world, or exoplanet. However, in a few cases they have been able to detect exoplanet atmospheres for gas giants known as “hot Jupiters.” An eruption sends out fumes and various gases, so volcanic activity on a rocky exoplanet might leave a telltale atmospheric signature.

To examine which volcanic gases might be detectable, Kaltenegger and her Harvard colleagues, Wade Henning and Dimitar Sasselov, developed a model for eruptions on an Earth-like exoplanet based on the present-day Earth. They found that sulfur dioxide from a very large, explosive eruption is potentially measurable because a lot is produced and it is slow to wash out of the air.

“Our first sniffs of volcanoes from an alien Earth might be pretty rank!” Kaltenegger said. “Seeing a volcanic eruption on an exoplanet will show us similarities or differences among rocky worlds.”

The 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed about 17 million tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere — a layer of air 6 to 30 miles above Earth’s surface. The largest volcanic eruption in recorded history, the 1815 Tambora event, was about 10 times more powerful.

Such gigantic eruptions are infrequent, so astronomers would have to monitor many Earth-sized planets for years to catch one in the act. However, if alien worlds are more volcanically active than Earth, success might be more likely.

“A Tambora-sized eruption doesn’t happen often here, but could be more common on a younger planet, or a strongly tidally active planet — analogous to Io,” said Henning. “Once you detected one eruption, you could keep watch for further ones, to learn if frequent eruptions are common on other planets.”

To look for volcanic sulfur dioxide, astronomers would rely on a technique known as the secondary eclipse, which requires the exoplanet to cross behind its star as seen from Earth. By collecting light from the star and planet, then subtracting the light from the star (while the planet is hidden), astronomers are left with the signal from the planet alone. They can search that signal for signs of particular chemical molecules.

Due to its proximity, a hypothetical Earth or super-Earth orbiting Alpha Centauri would offer a best-case scenario for a sun-like star. A super-Earth orbiting a smaller host star close to our own Sun would show the biggest signal. But any Earth-like planet less than 30 light-years away could show faint signs of volcanism when studied with the James Webb Space Telescope.

I think our telescope ability will out-pace our space probe capability simply because of economic conditions, not technological.

It’ll be cheaper to develop super long range sensor technology and couple that with virtual reality/super computing abilities.

Can you say “Avatar?”

Can we spot volcanoes on Alien Worlds?

Today’s hat tips go to The Daily Grail and Graham Hancock’s Site

Dark Energy Cam and NEO Caught On Film

Depending on your take on certain theories of how the Universe works, the following piece of equipment might be a total waste of time. Dark Energy, or dark matter in this case, supposedly makes up a good part of the mass of the Universe and can be detected with technology we recently have developed.

Now Fermilab, the one bastion of high technology we still have in the fundamentalist US, in cooperation with international astronomers and astrophysicists have built a telescope/camera that is capable of detecting and photographing said elusive dark matter/energy:

The planet’s biggest -570-megapixel- camera the size of a smart car is being built at Fermilab by an international team of particle physicists and astronomers, to help solve one of the great mysteries of the cosmos: what is dark energy -the ubiquitous, invisible matter believed to make up 70 percent of the universe and the hidden force behind the acceleration of the universe.

This is actually an impressive piece of technology. Our far range detection/sensor technology has outpaced our rocket tech by leaps and bounds. Couple that with our advancing software/AI tech, within a decade we’ll be able to discover an Earth-like planet and pick out details from its surface!

Why are we developing that kind of tech instead of  rocket tech? Is there a reason behind it?

Maybe it’s nothing. In the meantime however, I’ll eagerly await the results from this camera and see if dark matter actually exists.

The Dark Eye: Monster Camera To Seek Mysterious “Anti-Gravity Force” In Cosmos


Remember that asteroid that crossed Earth’s orbit within 76,000 miles yesterday?

Italian astronomers got a real good look at it and took some pictures:

team of astronomers from Italy captured images of the asteroid that passed by Earth Wednesday at a distance one-third that between the Earth and the Moon.

The rock, between 30 and 50 feet across, was not in danger of striking the planet and probably would have burned up in the atmosphere before hitting Earth’s surface, if it had headed our way. The asteroid, dubbed 2010 AL30 was first spotted and announced Monday. It is the closest encounter Earth will have with any known object until 2024.

In 2029 an asteroid known as Apophis will come three times closer than Wednesday’s asteroid did. Though the chances it will hit Earth are just one in 250,000, it is the subject of a lot of discussion, and Russia has announced it is making plans to deflect it.

The Russians deflecting Apophis meme in 2029 is still strong in the media.

I can say with some certainty however that it isn’t gonna happen without a huge infusion of cash.

Something the Russians don’t have.

In the meantime, the Italians got some good pictures, didn’t they?

Wednesday’s Near Earth Asteroid Caught On Film

Microsoft and the Google-Plex: Space Race of the 21st Century?

 Are Microsoft and Google in a space race? We think they are. Their rivalry is also, we believe, a precursor to the next great post-Internet technology boom: space exploration and development…

Microsoft just released its new Worldwide Telescope, which will access images from NASA’s great fleet of space-born telescopes and earth-bound observatories such as the future Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, partially funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, which is projected for ‘first light’ in 2014 in Chile’s Atacama Desert -the world’s Southern Hemisphere space-observatory mecca. The 8.4-meter telescope will be able to survey the entire visible sky deeply in multiple colors every week with its 3-billion pixel digital camera. The telescope will probe the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, and it will open a movie-like window on objects that change or move rapidly: exploding supernovae, potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroids and distant Kuiper Belt objects.

So far this particular ‘Space Race’ is confined to ground based telescopes using advanced viewing software. I predict in about 10-20 years Google/Microsoft will be conducting virtual reality tours to Solar System planets and moons utilizing more evolved versions.

This could happen faster than actual physical explorations by robots or humans.

Microsoft vs.Google: New Masters of the Universe?


Times Online UK has this to say about NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander:

…for Nasa, however, the biggest question of all is whether the Phoenix will reach the surface safely.

Its landing system will use descent engines for a controlled touchdown rather than making an airbag-cushioned landing.

This method allows for a larger payload of instruments but is more prone to failure and has seen serious losses. It has not been used successfully on Mars since 1976.

Almost half of the space probes sent to Mars from the past 40 years have failed to reach their targets for one reason or another.

This includes all probes, American, old Soviet, European, etc.

That’s quite a few. And the fact the landing system on Phoenix hasn’t been used since the Viking Landers over thirty years ago doesn’t inspire much confidence in NASA’s skills.

Nasa life-hunter closes in on Mars


More goodies other than space tours from the Google-Plex:

Google is billing Android as “a software stack for mobile devices that includes an operating system, middleware and key applications.” Some may call it Google’s answer to the iPhone, and for a long time it was already billed as “the iPhone killer,” long before the software development kit was released.

The Android is going to be a very open platform, where anyone can affect changes. Whereas before, wireless companies had a large amount of control over the phone and its software, with the introduction of Apple’s iPhone, things have been shook up: Google plan to take that a lot further with Android.

Android’s openness has been put through the wringer over at MIT though, after Massachusetts Industry of Technology professor Hal Abelson asked his computer science student’s one question; what do you want your cell phone to be able to do?

Like the Esso/Exxon ad of the 1960s-1970s, “Put a tiger in your tank”, the ad of the early 21st Century is going to be, “Put an android on your phone”.

The Google-monster might be onto something here. People now are disconnecting from landlines and are using their cellphones exclusively for calls, messaging and ‘Tubes surfing. Especially in countries that had no previous telephone infrastructure, this technology is wide spread. The ‘Android’ will only cement this.

The Google-Plex/Cloud-Hive Mind is coming!

MIT Students Demonstrate Potential Power of Google’s Android for Mobile Phones

Thanx today to The Daily Galaxy