ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The price tag on a new space telescope, including construction, launch and operation is about $8 billion. That's why NASA is looking for cheaper ways to produce the next generation of space telescopes. And one place to save money is the telescope's mirror. As part of his series Joe's Big Idea, NPR's Joe Palca has this story of a scientist who's found a way to build mirrors using glitter. Here's Joe.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Big telescopes use giant mirrors to capture starlight and focus it on a camera or some other kind of detector. The bigger the mirror, the finer the detail you can see out there. Astronomers like big mirrors. But in addition to the expense, Grover Swartzlander says there's another problem with building ever-larger telescopes.
GROVER SWARTZLANDER: Well, there's a fundamental limit to the size of telescopes we can put in space.
PALCA: Swartzlander's a physicist specializing in optics at Rochester Institute of Technology. He says they're just aren't rockets large enough to put really, really big telescopes into space. So instead of making mirrors the usual way out of glass, Swartzlander and his colleagues came up with the idea of making telescope mirrors that weigh practically nothing because they're made of what is essentially glitter, just like the stuff you buy in a crafts store. Tiny reflecting particles made of plastic with a metal coating. He says the idea is to take the shiny particles into space, spray a cloud of them outside the spacecraft and use lasers on the spacecraft to manipulate them into the shape of a mirror.
SWARTZLANDER: By controlling all these little glittery objects in space and the sweeping laser beams across them, we are going to orient them and stabilize them enough so that we can form some kind of an image.
PALCA: Now, there is a problem here. Yes, the mirror would be lightweight, but it wouldn't be a mirror with a smooth surface like you get with a glass mirror.
SWARTZLANDER: The detector's going to see a bunch of speckles. It's going to be a very terrible image. But what the real progress is on this topic is that there's a new trend in imaging, which is called computational photography. And by taking a series of these images, we can unravel the actual - an image of - a good image of the object from all this speckley type of things that the detector will see.
PALCA: Swartzlander says it'll take decades to perfect the technology for making giant glitter mirrors that can fly in space. But that doesn't mean this is just a pie-in-the-sky idea.
SWARTZLANDER: We've already demonstrated this glitter concept in the laboratory.
PALCA: Swartzlander says they went to their local Michaels - that's a craft store chain - bought a jar of glitter...
SWARTZLANDER: And sprinkled it on to a concave surface. And one of my smart graduate students worked on some algorithms to actually achieve a perfect image.
PALCA: And so this is just - down to the corner craft store and buy a jar of glitter and use that to create an image.
SWARTZLANDER: That's correct.
PALCA: Wow. Swartzlander is hoping to send a pint-size version of his glitter mirror into space in the next few years. Joe Palca, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.