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Rollable mirror tech could lay the foundation for bigger, stronger space telescopes

Published Apr 10th, 2023 7:48PM EDT
impression of IRAS space telescope in orbit
Image: JPL/NASA

Launching a space telescope is a costly process. Not only is the hardware needed for the telescope expensive, but the weight of the entire thing drives the cost of the fuel up, too. New rollable mirror tech could make building space telescopes much cheaper thanks to lighter, more transportable material.

The new tech is covered heavily in a new study published in Applied Optics. The study’s sole author, Sebastian Rabien, says that it could make creating large-scale mirrors like those used on the James Webb much easier. And, because this rollable mirror tech can condense in size, it would be easy to transport, too.

Rabien says he created these flexible mirrors by putting an evaporated substance (he did not say which substance) into a vacuum. After some time, the substance began to form into a thin, flexible material, likely as thin as plastic. Because this rollable mirror tech would be thin and flexible, it would also be lightweight.

space telescope mirrorImage source: Artsiom P / Adobe

Weight is a huge factor when you look at space-faring missions, as the heavier something is, the more fuel it will cost to get it out of Earth’s atmosphere. The James Webb space telescope currently features the largest mirror ever sent to space, measuring 21 feet and 4 inches in diameter.

That mirror took eight years to make and is estimated to weigh roughly 1500 pounds on Earth. With a thin, more flexible material like this rollable mirror tech, Rabien says we could make a lighter, larger, and much cheaper mirror for future space telescopes.

Of course, proving the viability and scaling of such a material is another thing altogether. But, based on what we’re seeing so far, Rabien’s discovery is promising and could lead to further developments down the line. If we can make the mirrors lighter, we can also make them larger, allowing them to see deeper into space.

Josh Hawkins has been writing for over a decade, covering science, gaming, and tech culture. He also is a top-rated product reviewer with experience in extensively researched product comparisons, headphones, and gaming devices.

Whenever he isn’t busy writing about tech or gadgets, he can usually be found enjoying a new world in a video game, or tinkering with something on his computer.