Lockheed Martin works on smaller, more powerful telescope tech

SPIDER uses thousands of tiny lenses to peer into space.

To make space telescopes more powerful, scientists would have to make their lenses larger. The bad news is it's not only tricky to make huge lenses (remember Hubble's spherical aberration?), it's also expensive to manufacture and ship them out to space. That's why Lockheed Martin is currently developing a technology that could lead to lighter, thinner and relatively cheaper alternative to the traditional two-lens telescope design. The tech called Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaissance (or SPIDER) replaces the classic lenses with thousands of tiny ones.

Each teensy lens feeds light to a silicon-chip photonic integrated circuit (PIC) -- one PIC is smaller than your fingernail -- developed by University of California, Davis researchers. Lockheed Martin senior fellow Alan Duncan explains how it works like so: "They can take a snapshot, process it and there's your image. It's basically treating interferometer arrays like a point-and-shoot camera." The company claims SPIDER could reduce the size and weight of telescopes by 10 to 100 times. It also likens the idea behind the project to slimming down bulky old TVs until we've gotten to the point that they're thin and light enough to hang on the wall.

The DARPA-funded project is still in its early stages, and it might not be ready until five to 10 years from now. When its development's done, though, space agencies could use it to monitor, say, outer planets, since its components are much lighter and will be much cheaper to ship. We might also see telescopes of various shapes, sizes and configuration, seeing as they don't need to be cylindrical anymore in order to house big lenses.