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Fluidice Telescope Experiment (FLUTE) to be Conducted Aboard International Space Station
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Fluidice Telescope Experiment (FLUTE) to be Conducted Aboard International Space Station

The FLUidic Telescope Experiment (FLUTE) project has been selected to take part in the scientific campaign organized by the Ramon Foundation within the Axiom-1 mission to the International Space Station (ISS), scheduled for launch in the first half of 2022. The primary experiment will constitute the first-ever fabrication of optical components in space. Its overall objective is to demonstrate the feasibility of rapid and inexpensive in-space fabrication of high-quality optical components in a variety of geometries and of virtually unlimited sizes. Potential in-space applications include large-scale observatories, optical communications, power generation and transfer, structures, and thermal management, as well as optics for scientific and medical instruments. The experiment will be performed by the second Israeli to go to space, Eytan Stibbe, with the fabricated components returned back to Earth for detailed analyses. In addition to the primary experiment, an educational experiment will demonstrate creation of a simple Keplerian telescope to schoolchildren around the world in real-time.

The ISS experiments are planned to be preceded by a series of parabolic microgravity flight tests, targeted for November of 2021. These flight tests will assist with optimization of the experimental hardware and material selection for the ISS mission. Both lenses and mirrors are planned to be produced during the flights, with the mirrors created using liquified gallium, as well as via atomic deposition of a reflective layer onto a polymerized substrate surface.

BACKGROUND: FLUTE is a collaboration involving NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. It aims to revolutionize space astronomy and in-space manufacturing of high-precision optics for a variety of other applications by leveraging the physics of wetting and hydrostatic phenomena in microgravity. The approach being developed by the team is scale-invariant and expected to enable space telescopes with optical apertures measuring in tens or even hundreds of meters, allowing, for instance, direct imaging of extra-solar planets.

The theory and mathematical models underpinning the approach have been successfully validated in a laboratory setting, utilizing neutral buoyancy to simulate microgravity. Optical components of different sizes and geometries have been fabricated, including spherical, axisymmetric and off-axis aspherical, meniscus, cylindrical, saddle, bifocal, and doublets. The approach has been used to produce both refractive and reflective components with surface quality exceeding traditional manufacturing methods and approaching state-of-the-art — but at a small fraction of the typical fabrication time and cost. The average size of surface imperfections measured with an atomic force microscope at 20-micron scales is less than 0.75 nanometers (i.e., a hundred thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair). In certain cases, components may be retained in their fluidic state, permitting dynamic modulation of optical properties. In addition to space applications, a number of terrestrial uses are being pursued, including fast and inexpensive fabrication of high-quality prescription eyewear in low-resource settings.

FUNDING: Ames Center Innovation Fund, Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD); GSFC discretionary funding; and the Technion Center for Security, Science, and Technology (CSST) Fund

TEAM: NASA ARC: Edward Balaban, Ruslan Belikov (ARC Science, Code S), Jay Bookbinder (ARC Office of the Director, Code D), Roberto Carlino, and Anthony Colaprete (Code S); NASA GSFC: Vivek Dwivedi; TECHNION: Moran Bercovici, Mor Elgarisi, Valeri Frumkin (presently at MIT), and Omer Luria

POINT OF CONTACT: Edward Balaban, edward.balaban@nasa.gov

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