Large telescopes and structures that can be compacted and deployed in a single small launch vehicle and then inflated once they are in orbit may play a significant part in the future of Earth and space exploration.
As part of the Gossamer Spacecraft Initiative, which is charged with developing technology for large telescopes and space solar sails, scientists and engineers at NASA’a Jet Propulsion Laboratory are identifying and exploring ways to put large structures in space.
They hope to find breakthroughs in ultra-light, inflatable materials that will substantially reduce mission costs and enable large, ultra- light objects to observe the Earth, hence enabling NASA researchers explore deeper into space.
A crucial step in the technology development process is space testing of prototype inflatable systems. The Inflatable Antenna Experiment, recently deployed by the Space Shuttle Endeavour, provided significant data on the performance of inflatable systems.
The 14-metre antenna was successfully deployed and inflated for several hours in space.
Inflatables will have a major advantage over mechanical structures because they do not require bulky glass and steel to support the very thin reflecting surface that collects light from the cosmos.
The space applications for antennas many times the size of current mechanical orbiting antennas include satellites for deep space and mobile communications, Earth and astronomical observations, plus space based radar.
Future development work on inflatables will concentrate on areas of materials research, optical-quality telescopes and massive solar sail structures.
Information and images of space inflatable are available at http://arise.jpl.nasa.gov/