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The FLUTE Project - A Huge Liquid Mirror In Space

Bigger telescopes gather more light, the bigger the better, especially in space. But how can we hope to create telescopes that are truly huge, given the constraints of lifting these objects into space.

What if the mirror is not solid? Enter the FLUTE Project - the FLUidic TElescope!


(FLUTE telescope)

With mission costs depending strongly on aperture diameter, scaling current space telescope technologies to aperture sizes beyond 10 m does not appear economically viable. The 6-m Astro2020 flagship would already strain NASAs budget and its launch date is expected to be later than most astronomers would like (first half of the 2040s), largely driven by the substantial expected cost. Without a breakthrough in scalable technologies for large telescopes, future advances in astrophysics may slow down or even completely stall. Thus, there is a need for cost-effective solutions to scale space telescopes to larger sizes.

We propose a mission concept for a space observatory with a large-aperture (50-meter) unsegmented primary mirror suitable for a variety of astronomical applications. The mirror would be created in space via a novel approach based on fluidic shaping in microgravity, which has already been successfully demonstrated in a laboratory neutral buoyancy environment, in parabolic microgravity flights, and aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Theoretically scale-invariant, this technique has produced optical components with superb, sub-nanometer (RMS) surface quality.

Science fiction writers of course introduced us to this idea generations ago. During the Golden Age of science fiction, Raymond Z. Gallun described a liquid mirror telescope on Mars in his 1934 story Old Faithful.

Enigmatic forms of weird apparatus crowded in bewildering complexity against the walls. Tipped at a steep angle at the center of the floor was a vast cylinder of webby girders. Piercing the dome, opposite the upper end of the cylinder, was a circular opening through which a portion of the starlit sky was visible; and at the base of the cylinder a great bowl rotated rapidly, like a huge wheel.


(Mercury Telescope from 'Old Faithful' by Raymond Z. Gallun)

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