Lockheed Martin making progress on radical shrinking of space telescopes

PALO ALTO, Calif. Lockheed Martin recently revealed the first images from an experimental, ultra-thin optical instrument it has been working on, revealing that it may be possible to shrink space telescopes to a tiny fraction of the size of today's systems while maintaining equivalent resolution.

Infographic courtesy .

Lockheed Martin's SPIDER -- or Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-Optical Reconnaissance -- weighs 90 percent less than a typical telescope, ostensibly clearing a path for extremely lightweight optical instruments and allowing for more hosted payloads or smaller spacecraft. The up-and-coming sensor technology has applications for aircraft and other vehicles; for example, says the company, the near future could bring unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with imagers laid flat underneath their wings, or cars that carry imaging placed flush against their grills.

The system uses tiny lenses to feed optical data divided and recombined in a photonic integrated circuit (PIC), a technology that was originally designed for telecommunications at the University of California, Davis. Lockheed Martin discovered that they could use these chips in a different way, namely to use them in ultrathin telescopes using a technique called interferometric imaging.

In the recent company tests, the PIC was aligned to a series of 30 lenses, each smaller than a millimeter across. An optical system simulated the distance from space to the ground, where scenes were illuminated and rotated. The first image included a standard bar test pattern, and the second image showed the overhead view of a complex rail yard. The lenses and PIC comprise one section of a full instrument to be assembled in the next project phase. The team plans to increase the resolution and field of view in future phases.

Scott Fouse, vice president of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Center, said of the project: "This is generation-after-next capability we're building from the ground up. Our goal is to replicate the same performance of a space telescope in an instrument that is about an inch thick. That's never been done before. We're on our way to make space imaging a low-cost capability so our customers can see more, explore more and learn more."

Topics covered in this article