James Webb Space Telescope is the premier observatory of the next decade, but even before its launch, new research suggests that swarms of small satellites will make it obsolete in the near future.
Researchers from Ben-Gurion University in Israel have developed a cheaper, groundbreaking satellite imaging system that will revolutionize the way pictures are taken on space as well as here on Earth.
"This is an invention that completely changes the costs of space exploration, astronomy, aerial photography, and more," said Angika Bulbul, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the BGU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Synthetic Aperture Systems
The invented technique, which is called synthetic aperture systems, lets the single tiny camera to capture photographs as it moves across space. As it gathers and analyzes data, it produces images that can be created by a much larger camera basically synthesizing a bigger aperture.
In a paper published in December 2018 issue of Optica, the team of researchers demonstrates the two satellites, the size of milk cartons, in a spherical arrangement. The two satellites move around the circle to collect data and beam it to the third stationary camera.
The configuration captures images with resolution, the same with the most advanced lens used in telescopes today. The researchers proved some previous assumptions about long-range photography to be wrong.
"We found that you only need a small part of a telescope lens to obtain quality images," Bulbul explained. "Even by using the perimeter aperture of a lens, as low as 0.43 percent, we managed to obtain similar image resolution compared to the full aperture area of mirror/lens-based imaging systems."
Basically, it means that they were able to get the results of a camera 50 times the size of what they were using. With these impressive results, the huge cost and time needed to build large optical space telescopes can be slashed dramatically.
Space telescopes should have extreme precision of measurements, however, and even fractions of a millimeter already count. While these new inventions are still very much in the laboratory, it is not impossible to eventually see swarms of satellites sent into space to collect massive data.