Swarms of tiny satellites could act like one giant space telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope will soon be launched, a huge and complex technical feat, all in one. This is a good thing at the moment, but new research suggests that in the near future, giant telescopes like the Webb could be replaced (or at least augmented) by swarms of tiny spacecraft working together.

One of the advances made by Ben Gurion University in Israel constitutes a leap in the capabilities of what is called Synthetic Aperture Systems. It is a technique that allows a single small camera to move in a space and capture images as and when. Thanks to a very thorough analysis of the data it collects, it can produce images similar to those created by a much larger camera, essentially synthesizing a larger aperture.

As stated in an article published today in Optica the team is interestingly surpassing the existing methods. Two satellites move synchronously around the circle, collecting data as they go and transmitting them to a third stationary; this circle describes the synthetic aperture created by both cameras.

"We found that it was enough for a small part of a telescope lens to get quality images," said Angika Bulbul, a graduate student of BGU, who led the search in a press release . "Even using the opening of the perimeter of a goal, as low as 0.43%, we managed to achieve an image resolution similar to that of the full-open area of ​​the systems of D & # 39; Imaging mirror / lens. "

In other words, they were able to get the results of a camera 50 times bigger. It would be awesome no matter where, but in the space it's especially important. Put into orbit something as vast and complex as Webb is an incredibly complex and tedious business. And that puts a lot of eggs in one basket (very carefully checked and re-checked).

But if you could instead use a handful of satellites and replace one in case of failure, it would really open the door. "We can reduce the huge cost, time, and hardware needed for the gigantic traditional optical space telescopes with large curved mirrors," Bulbul said.

However, one of the challenges of space telescopes is that they must take measurements with extreme precision. And to maintain a perfectly immobile satellite is difficult enough, to say nothing of making it move perfectly to fractions of millimeters.

To stay on track, many satellites currently use reliable fixed light sources, such as bright stars, as reference points when calculating various elements related to their operations. Some astronomers have even used lasers to excite a point located in the atmosphere and provide a kind of artificial star to the use of these systems.

These methods both have strengths and weaknesses, but MIT researchers believe they have found a more permanent and high-precision solution: a "star guide" satellite that can sit at thousands of kilometers and driving a powerful laser on Earth and its orbital region.

This light source would be reliable, stable and highly visible. satellites could use it to calculate their position and minute changes in their imaging device caused by heat and radiation, perhaps to an impossible extent with real stars or atmospheric points.

These two intriguing technologies are still largely at the heart of the laboratory, but all the important advances have begun in theory, and it may be that in a few years, swarms of satellites will be sent into space not to provide terrestrial communications, but Create a massive synthetic telescope overlooking the universe.

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