The Hubble Space Telescope is celebrating its 25th year in orbit, but NASA scientists are already working on its successor, which may utilize glitter to carry out observations. This new system could be used in finding alien life around distant suns.

The Hubble observatory was launched into space on April 24, 1990, aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Soon after the long-awaited space telescope reached orbit, astronomers found the main mirror was manufactured with a defect, ruining observations. In 1993, astronauts fitted the HST with an optics package that corrected images taken with the space-based observatory. Mission engineers believe the HST could last another five years or so, driving some researchers to begin calling for a new generation telescope to take its place.

"In my view, the next priority should be the search for life beyond our solar system. A powerful space telescope that can spot biological signatures in the atmospheres of Earth-like exoplanets would be a worthy successor," Mario Livio, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said.

Rather than one large mirror, like the one in Hubble, NASA is currently considering using glitter in a next-generation telescope to act like millions of tiny mirrors. Large mirrors are not only difficult to construct, but their extreme size and weight also pose challenges — and costs — in launching such a system.

Orbiting Rainbows is a new system that would use glitter to gather and reflect light for imaging and analysis. Instead of a mirror, the future observatory would rely on a cloud of glitter, controlled by a network of lasers.

"It's a floating cloud that acts as a mirror. There is no backing structure, no steel around it, no hinges; just a cloud," Marco Quadrelli, principal investigator for Orbiting Rainbows at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said.

Pressure exerted by light from the lasers aligns the flecks of glitter, allowing researchers to adjust the diameter of the telescope. Lasers could also control the wavelengths of light collected by the observatory, from radar to visible light and radio waves.

The Orbiting Rainbow system could be used to analyze atmospheres surrounding alien worlds in an effort to discover life around other stars. The idea of a glitter-based space telescope was first proposed in 1979 by Antoine Labeyrie from the College de France. One challenge facing mission planners is that images collected by the glitter-based system will contain more "noise" than would be produced by a single mirror. Adaptive optics are being designed to overcome that problem.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), scheduled for launch in 2018, is due to cost $8.7 billion. Orbiting Rainbows would provide a new space telescope at a fraction of the cost of the Webb telescope, possibly leading to the discovery of alien life for the first time in history.

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