Tiny Satellites Could Be 'Guide Stars' for Huge Next-Generation Telescopes


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Star Fleet

Cahoy’s lab has been developing laser communications for use in CubeSats, which are shoebox-sized satellites that can be built and launched into space at a fraction of the cost of conventional spacecraft.

For this new study, the researchers looked at whether a laser, integrated into a CubeSat or slightly larger SmallSat, could be used to maintain the stability of a large, segmented space telescope modeled after NASA’s LUVOIR (for Large UV Optical Infrared Surveyor), a conceptual design that includes multiple mirrors that would be assembled in space.

Researchers have estimated that such a telescope would have to remain perfectly still, within 10 picometers — about a quarter the diameter of a hydrogen atom — in order for an onboard coronagraph to take accurate measurements of a planet’s light, apart from its star.

“Any disturbance on the spacecraft, like a slight change in the angle of the sun, or a piece of electronics turning on and off and changing the amount of heat dissipated across the spacecraft, will cause slight expansion or contraction of the structure,” Douglas says. “If you get disturbances bigger than around 10 picometers, you start seeing a change in the pattern of starlight inside the telescope, and the changes mean that you can’t perfectly subtract the starlight to see the planet’s reflected light.”

The team came up with a general design for a laser guide star that would be far enough away from a telescope to be seen as a fixed star — about tens of thousands of miles away — and that would point back and send its light toward the telescope’s mirrors, each of which would reflect the laser light toward an onboard camera. That camera would measure the phase of this reflected light over time. Any change of 10 picometers or more would signal a compromise to the telescope’s stability that, onboard actuators could then quickly correct.

To see if such a laser guide star design would be feasible with today’s laser technology, Douglas and Cahoy worked with colleagues at the University of Arizona to come up with different brightness sources, to figure out, for instance, how bright a laser would have to be to provide a certain amount of information about a telescope’s position, or to provide stability using models of segment stability from large space telescopes. They then drew up a set of existing laser transmitters and calculated how stable, strong, and far away each laser would have to be from the telescope to act as a reliable guide star.

In general, they found laser guide star designs are feasible with existing technologies, and that the system could fit entirely within a SmallSat about the size of a cubic foot. Douglas says that a single guide star could conceivably follow a telescope’s “gaze,” traveling from one star to the next as the telescope switches its observation targets. However, this would require the smaller spacecraft to journey hundreds of thousands of miles paired with the telescope at a distance, as the telescope repositions itself to look at different stars.

Instead, Douglas says a small fleet of guide stars could be deployed, affordably, and spaced across the sky, to help stabilize a telescope as it surveys multiple exoplanetary systems. Cahoy points out that the recent success of NASA’s MARCO CubeSats, which supported the Mars Insight lander as a communications relay, demonstrates that CubeSats with propulsion systems can work in interplanetary space, for longer durations and at large distances.

“Now we’re analyzing existing propulsion systems and figuring out the optimal way to do this, and how many spacecraft we’d want leapfrogging each other in space,” Douglas says. “Ultimately, we think this is a way to bring down the cost of these large, segmented space telescopes.”

This research was funded in part by a NASA Early Stage Innovation Award.

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