Nov 6, 2015 | By Alec

The aerospace industry, with NASA as its eternal frontrunner, has been a champion of high quality 3D printing innovation over the past few years. The number of 3D printed parts on prototypes and on actually space-bound objects is continually increasing, but is now even reaching a remarkable sector: telescope mirrors. Several telescope parts have already been 3D printed in the past, but as part of a new optical engineering study, a team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is now planning to 3D print a freeform mirror for a next-gen two-mirror instrument.

This innovation is part of a new wave of telescope development, and is finally parting with the classic mirror concept of round shapes that fit inside a tube. New projects have utilized the latest optical breakthroughs to build telescopes of virtually any shape that provide better image quality than ever before (packed into a smaller package), and it looks like 3D printing is a part of that future. This technological breakthrough is called freeform optics, and is currently being studied by a team of NASA optical engineers at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The team, that includes engineers Joseph Howard and Garrett West, is seeking to design and realize a two-mirror telescope that relies on these freeform optical concepts. ‘The use of freeform optics can significantly reduce the package size as well as improve the image quality,’ Howard explained. As he explained, it is especially useful for the development of small, compact telescopes that can fit into small satellites (such as CubeSats) that can be cost-effectively sent into space. ‘If you want to put these telescopes into a smaller box, you need to let the mirrors bend like a potato chip,’ he added.

Freeform optics, to explain, rely on asymmetric mirrors that can create a larger usable field of view than traditional telescopes, while being lighter and more compact. Traditional telescopes required up to nine symmetrical mirrors to be of any use in aerospace, but Howard and West reduce that number to six while shrinking the size of the complete package tenfold. The goal is now to build an initial prototype for testing with two of these freeform mirrors. ‘Our design studies suggest that a factor of five or more reduction in the volume of optical instrumentation can be achieved by freeform surfaces,’ Howard says.

But the real fun begins next year, when scheduled testing will also work with a freeform 3D printed mirror, building on another project that is working on completely 3D printed imaging telescopes. The team believes that this 3D printing approach could be game-changing in the process of imaging exoplanets. ‘NASA will benefit,’ Howard said. ‘Freeform optics will be critical. They will enable larger fields of view and fit in size-limited packages, such as those found in CubeSats and small satellites, or on larger missions where space allocations are tight.’

It will thus be very interesting to see what 3D printing can bring to the table. To improve their effectiveness, NASA recently also launched the Freeform Optics Research Group Endeavor (FORGE), which will be focusing on these next-generation telescopes.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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