Harnessing the Power of Diffractive Lenses for Astronomy

Category Space

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Astronomers have discovered over 5,000 exoplanets that may be home to life, and astronomers need more powerful telescopes to learn more about these distant planets. A new type of space telescope, called the Nautilus Space observatory, is being developed by a team of professors and NASA scientists that would use a lightweight and inexpensive lens instead of large, heavy mirrors. If successfully built, this telescope could revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial life and allow us to explore the universe on an unprecedented level.

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Astronomers have discovered more than 5,000 planets outside of the solar system to date. The grand question is whether any of these planets are home to life. To find the answer, astronomers will likely need more powerful telescopes than exist today.

I am an astronomer who studies astrobiology and planets around distant stars. For the last seven years, I have been co-leading a team that is developing a new kind of space telescope that could collect a hundred times more light than the James Webb Space Telescope, the biggest space telescope ever built.

The Nautilus Space observatory is estimated to launch by 2035

Almost all space telescopes, including Hubble and Webb, collect light using mirrors. Our proposed telescope, the Nautilus Space Observatory, would replace large, heavy mirrors with a novel, thin lens that is much lighter, cheaper, and easier to produce than mirrored telescopes. Because of these differences, it would be possible to launch many individual units into orbit and create a powerful network of telescopes.

Northrop Grumman was the aerospace giant that invited 15 modern scientists to Los Angeles to discuss the future of exoplanet space telescopes

The Need for Larger Telescopes .

Exoplanets—planets that orbit stars other than the sun—are prime targets in the search for life. Astronomers need to use giant space telescopes that collect huge amounts of light to study these faint and faraway objects.

Existing telescopes can detect exoplanets as small as Earth. However, it takes a lot more sensitivity to begin to learn about the chemical composition of these planets. Even the James Webb Space Telescope is just barely powerful enough to search certain exoplanets for clues of life—namely gases in the atmosphere.

Diffractive lenses use diffraction instead of refraction to focus light

Webb cost more than $8 billion and took over 20 years to build. The next flagship telescope is not expected to fly before 2045 and is estimated to cost $11 billion. These ambitious telescope projects are always expensive, laborious, and produce a single powerful—but very specialized—observatory.

A New Kind of Telescope .

In 2016, aerospace giant Northrop Grumman invited me and 14 other professors and NASA scientists—all experts on exoplanets and the search for extraterrestrial life—to Los Angeles to answer one question: What will exoplanet space telescopes look like in 50 years? .

The first diffractive lenses were invented in 1819

In our discussions, we realized that a major bottleneck preventing the construction of more powerful telescopes is the challenge of making larger mirrors and getting them into orbit. To bypass this bottleneck, a few of us came up with the idea of revisiting an old technology called diffractive lenses.

Conventional lenses use refraction to focus light. Refraction is when light changes direction as it passes from one medium to another—it is the reason light bends when it enters water. In contrast, diffraction is when light bends around corners and obstacles. A cleverly arranged pattern of steps and angles on a glass surface can form a diffractive lens.

Diffractive lenses are used in camera lenses, virtual reality headsets, and other consumer optics

The first such lenses were invented by the French scientist Augustin-Jean Fresnel in 1819 to provide lightweight lenses for lighthouses. Today, similar diffractive lenses can be found in many small-sized consumer optics, from camera lenses to virtual reality headsets.

Thin, simple diffractive lenses are notorious for their blurry images, so they have never been used in astronomy until now. But with computing power increasing and algorithms improving, the pattern of diffractive surfaces can be optimized to become steadily sharper. My team has used this technology to create a thin lens that weighs only 2.5 kilograms—a fraction of what a conventional mirror of the same size would weigh.

Diffractive lenses are notoriously blurry

We are now building, testing, and attempting to optimize the lens. A successful trial will prove that diffractive lenses can replace traditional mirrors in immense space-based observatories. We expect our project to be ready for launch by 2035.

The Implications for Astronomy .

The prospect of diffractive space telescopes opens up a tantalizing possibility—a revolution in astronomy. Diffractive lenses are inherently cheaper and lighter than conventional mirrors. We could build hundreds of small, lightweight units and launch them into orbit separately. From there, they could link up to form a large network, or ‘virtual telescope’ with a diameter far greater, and resolution far higher, than any single mirror ever made.

Such a telescope would open up the universe to exploration on an unprecedented scale. We would be able to observe large swaths of the night sky in intense detail. It could track the movements of asteroids and comets, and provide early warning systems for potential asteroid collisions. It could also revolutionize the search for exoplanets and the study of planets around other stars.

Conclusion .

The next few years will be pivotal for my team and our work on the Nautilus Space Observatory. By using computing and diffractive lenses, I hope we can create an affordable, powerful observatory that can answer humanity’s grandest questions — Is there life beyond our own solar system? How do galaxies form? Are there other universes? .

Only time will tell.

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