Astronomers always want bigger, better telescopes and spacecraft to get the best information they can about the universe.
And despite federal pocketbook pinching — level funding devalued by rising inflation — new and relatively affordable technologies to squeeze the most out of spacecraft are just around the corner, said Dennis Ebbets, a spokesperson for Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colo., here at the Space Telescope Science Institute's Astrophysics 2020 meeting at Johns Hopkins University this week.
Although the bill for the still-in-development James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may top more than $1 billion, Ebbets noted the observatory is a proof-of-concept for the future. Engineers intend to squeeze the final 21-foot diameter observatory into an Ariane 5 rocket payload space, which tops out in diameter at less than 18 feet.
"It's very impressive," Ebbets said of the JWST prototype's ability to fold up into a tight space. "The technologies exist or can exist for getting bigger (telescope) apertures into modest launch vehicles."
Speedier space downloads
As bigger telescopes with more sensitive light-gathering sensors launch into space, Ebbets said, they'll have to handle beaming that data back to Earth more efficiently.
"We're not getting every pixel of data back from telescopes right now," he said of most space observatories' on-board, data-processing systems.
The idea is similar to converting a large-image format to a smaller file size by a factor of 10. During the compression process, some of the image data is inevitably lost.
Sending telescope data back to astronomers on the ground at about 2.5 Gigabits per second — a DVD-worth of data in a few seconds — is now possible, Ebbets said, using laser-based communication technology called LaserCom. Such a speed could cut spacecraft weight, make real-time observations possible and circumvent compression problems as telescope data would not need to be processed into smaller packages before shipment to Earth.
"I can imagine having Mars missions or other deep-space missions sending data back to Earth in very large data packages," he said.
Ebbets also noted that automating spacecraft repair, refueling and other tasks will help squeeze the value out of unmanned missions by eliminating the expense of humans in space.
One way to do that is with instruments that grant better "machine vision" for automated yet delicate on-orbit tasks such as docking.
"These things actually do exist," Ebbets said of new light detection and ranging (LIDAR) systems his company has designed. The device's 3-D laser technology helps a spacecraft gauge its distance from another object such as an asteroid or other probe — precise within under an inch.
"These allow for autonomous rendezvous and docking in space, and allow two spacecraft to operate in close proximity to each other," he said. "LIDAR could also be used for hazard avoidance during lunar or Mars missions."
As such technologies such as LaserCom and LIDAR mature and make their way onto new spacecraft, Ebbets said, making the most of increasingly tight funding will continue to push the development of spaceflight technologies.
"We all want to get the most and best science out of the budgets we have available," Ebbets said. "We're now seeing less costly things could be made much more capable."