A lightweight telescope that NASA scientists are developing specifically for tiny CubeSat scientific investigations can become the first to carry a mirror made of carbon nanotubes embedded in an epoxy resin.
Led by Theodor Kostiuk, scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the effort is aimed at giving the scientific community a compact, reproducible and relatively inexpensive telescope that would fit easily inside a CubeSat that measures four inches on a side.
"No one has been able to make a mirror using a carbon-nanotube resin. The technology is too new to fly in space, and first must go through the various levels of technological advancement," said Peter Chen, a Goddard contractor and president of Lightweight Telescopes, Inc.
Small satellites, including CubeSats, are playing an increasingly larger role in exploration, technology demonstration, scientific research and educational investigations at NASA.
These miniature satellites provide a low-cost platform for NASA missions, including planetary space exploration, Earth observations, fundamental Earth and space science and developing science instruments like cutting-edge laser communications, satellite-to-satellite communications and autonomous movement capabilities.
Kostiuk's team seeks to develop a CubeSat telescope that would be sensitive to the ultraviolet, visible and infrared wavelength bands. It would be equipped with commercial-off-the-shelf spectrometers and imagers and would be ideal as an "exploratory tool for quick looks that could lead to larger missions," Kostiuk explained in a NASA statement.
By all accounts, the new-fangled mirror could prove central to creating a low-cost space telescope for a range of CubeSat scientific investigations. Unlike most telescope mirrors made of glass or aluminum, this particular optic is made of carbon nanotubes embedded in an epoxy resin.
To make a mirror, technicians simply pour the mixture of epoxy and carbon nanotubes into a mandrel or mold fashioned to meet a particular optical prescription. They then heat the mold to to cure and harden the epoxy. Once set, the mirror then is coated with a reflective material of aluminum and silicon dioxide. "This technology can potentially enable very large-area technically active optics in space," Chen added.