(c) Copyright 2011 David j Dilworth
Imagine resolving details of nearby stars and their planets.
Sub-nano-arc second resolution should be possible with this proposal for a telescope that is composed of a set of three sets of two (six total) lens-sensor spacecraft systems that send images and data back to Earth from three baselines that can begin sending ground breaking data when the spacecraft are separated by 10 times Earth’s diameter. The baselines of the six spacecraft grow over some 100 to 200 years to about 100 billion miles (roughly 1100 AU, 2 hundredths of a light year or 160 terameters).
Three pairs of identical telescopes are launched in six X,Y,Z axis directions to escape our Solar System and return images from each of the three paired baselines. One axis is intended to be perpendicular to our galactic plane.
The gigantic baseline should allow sub nano-arc-second resolution which is valuable for many things including resolving some details of nearby stars and their planets.
They should be able to help determine accurate distances (within 10 percent) to objects as much as five billion light years from us – roughly 10 percent of the way to the “edge” of our visible Universe.
Some of the other research they could conduct include highly accurate parallax distances of objects beyond 450 million light years, cosmic rays beyond the strong influence of our Sun’s magnetic effects, spectra free of our sun’s influence, and properties of interstellar dust, gas and plasma.
These telescopes are inspired by the Voyager spacecraft and the the world’s largest telescope, the Very Large Baseline Array telescope (VLBA) which extends from Hawaii to New Hampshire, and boasts a resolution a hundred times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope (thousandths vs tenths of an arc-second). Like the Voyagers they will send data back, in addition the telescopes will be directable from Earth.
Currently the highest resolution astronomical images are in the 7 micro-arc-second range (millionths of an arc second) by the Russian Spektr-R satellite that coordinates with ground based radio telescopes. This article’s proposal should provide about four magnitudes greater angular resolution in the range of billionths of an arc-second range (nanoarcseconds).
Similar to those used on Voyagers the telescopes and detectors are primarily for the optical range but include sensors that will also register UV, some IR and radio waves.
High Reliability Means Low Tech with Exhaustive Testing
As recently as the 1970s top Russian aircraft primarily used vacuum tubes instead of solid state computer chips. While seemingly silly to Americans, vacuum tubes are more tolerant of temperature extremes and not vulnerable to EMPs which can kill computer chips. This illustrates how the newest and highest tech equipment is not always the best choice.
Because service stations are scarce beyond our Heliopause, I propose this concept use the most solidly reliable and well tested systems; systems that are exhaustively tested both individually and as a complete system. (Do the original Hubble missing optics tests serve as a model to avoid ?)
The Interplanetary Superhighway
The system could use the Interplanetary Superhighway composed of the many Lagrange L1 & L2 points, to boost its speed to possibly triple the speed of Voyager spacecraft.
While the ability of Lagrange points for keeping satellites in place (stationkeeping) is fairly well known, less appreciated is how the instability of L1 and L2 points can boost a spacecraft’s speed.
Because the system is intended to operate beyond the heliopause it must use so little energy to operate self-sufficiently on the faint power available from our suns rays outside the HelioSphere or MagnetoPause. The Voyagers began operating with around 400 watts of power. After 20 years into the missions the nuclear-thermocouple generator’s output was reduced to about 280 watts.
I believe systems can be combined that use a tiny fraction of that amount of energy. They can use flywheels (which do double duty as gyroscopes) to store energy for use when needed so a smaller power source and smaller photo-voltaic panels are needed. Further, not all systems need operate simultaneously. Devices can be powered only when needed or at specified and re-programmable intervals.
Telescope Size Based on Limited Funding
These spacecraft should be relatively inexpensive to build, launch and operate. Once the telemetry equipment is established that can comfortably operate for the time needed to reach 10x HelioSphere or MagnetoPause diameter, the telescope size is scaled to fit the capital and operations budget.