NASA seeks to build huge telescopes with fluid materials

US space agency NASA is experimenting with ways to build huge telescopes out of fluid materials. Such devices could allow astronomers to examine older, more distant space objects.

Bigger telescopes often lead to big and new discoveries. They can reach further into space, find and collect light at much greater distances than smaller equipment.

In January, NASA announced the deployment of its “largest and most powerful” telescope ever built, the James Webb Space Telescope. It aims to build on the work of past telescopes, while gathering in-depth information about the early development of the universe.

This 2015 artist rendering provided by Northrop Grumman, via NASA, shows the James Webb Space Telescope. (Northrop Grumman/NASA via AP)

But NASA is looking to dramatically increase the size of its telescopes, up to 100 times larger than those currently in use. One way to achieve this is to build lentils using fluid materials.

NASA has conducted experiments to see if fluids can be used to create telescope lenses in microgravity conditions. The goal is to establish a method that could be used by astronauts in space to create lenses after transporting the necessary materials.

Much of the research focuses on exploring the behavior of liquids in microgravity. Nasa Remarks in a description of his experiments that all liquids contain a force that holds them together on their surface. This force is called surface tension.

On Earth, surface tension can hold very small drops of water together in a perfect circle. But when the drops get bigger, the surface tension is broken and the circular shape of the drop collapses. In space, the microgravity environment causes drops of water and other fluids to form perfect circles and stay that way.

One experiment is called the Fluidic Telescope Experiment, or FLUTE. It is a joint project involving NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, and the Israel Institute of Technology, known as Technion.

FLUTE’s principal investigator is Edward Balaban. He said in a statement that the way liquids behave in microgravity may be suitable for producing large telescopes or other optical elements.

“In microgravity, liquids take on shapes useful for making lenses and mirrorssaid Balaban. “So if we make them in space, they could be used to build telescopes that are dramatically bigger than it was previously thought possible.”

FLUTE team members conducted experiments on the ground and in the air to test different liquid materials. In one test, scientists combined water with chemical mixtures in search of a good material to make telescope lenses. The tests simulated a weightless environment.

FLUTE researchers capture data while pushing synthetic oil through a circular frame, momentarily forming a liquid lens during a 15-20 second microgravity period on a ZeroG parabolic flight.  (Image credits: Technion - Israel Institute of Technology)

FLUTE researchers capture data while pushing synthetic oil through a circular frame, momentarily forming a liquid lens during a 15-20 second microgravity period on a ZeroG parabolic flight. (Image credits: Technion – Israel Institute of Technology)

Researchers involved in the experiments said they were able to easily create lenses in a container. They reported that the resulting lenses had similar or even better surface qualities than lenses produced with expensive equipment.

In December, the FLUTE team carried out experiments on two airplane flights in weightlessness. Such flights involve an aircraft ascending and descending at different altitudes in an effort to produce brief microgravity conditions. The team had 50 chances to achieve microgravity periods of 15 to 20 seconds for testing.

Moran Bercovici, a mechanical engineering professor at the Technion, helped direct the experiments. He said the team used pumps to push different petroleum materials in a circular frame. Within seconds, Bercovici said, “we were able to create a self-contained liquid lens – until the plane lifted again and gravity kicked in and the oils oozed outside.”

In this file photo, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg watches as a bubble of water floats freely between her and the camera, showing her refracted image in the droplet.  (Image credit: NASA)

In this file photo, NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg watches as a bubble of water floats freely between her and the camera, showing her refracted image in the droplet. (Image credit: NASA)

The experiment produced hardened lenses. Bercovici and his team plan to perform more experiments in the coming months to test how different fluids hold their shape in microgravity.

A project FLUTE experiment will be carried out on board the International Space Station (ISS). It is to be completed by private astronaut Eytan Stibbe, the second Israeli to go into space. He launched to the ISS on April 8, along with three other private astronauts.

Stibbe will attempt to use a polymeric material, as in the Technion lab experiment, to create lenses in full microgravity. The lenses will then be brought back to Earth for further examination.

Balaban said: “If our experiment (ISS) is successful, it will be the first time that an optical device making up takes place in space. It’s like going down in history.”

I am Caty Weaver. And I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story for VOA Learning English, based on reports from NASA, the Ramon Foundation, and Axiom Space.

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words in this story

lens – nm a piece of equipment, made of glass or plastic, with a curved surface that is used to make images appear larger or cleaner

optical – adj. related to light or the ability to see

shimmer – nm a piece of glass with a shiny metallic material on one side that produces an image of whatever is in front of it

spectacular – adj. very sudden or noticeable

previous – adj. existing or occurring before something else

simulate – v. do or do something that seems real, but isn’t

ooze – v. get out of something

making up – nm a part of something, especially a machine

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