Large telescopes and structures 10 times the size of the
Rose Bowl that can be compacted and deployed in a single small
launch vehicle and then inflated once they are in orbit are a
major part of the future of Earth and space exploration.

As part of the Gossamer Spacecraft Initiative, which is
chartered with developing technology for large telescopes and
space solar sails, scientists and engineers at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., are identifying
and exploring new ways to put large structures in space.

The result is breakthroughs in ultralight, inflatable
materials that will substantially reduce mission costs and enable
large, ultralight objects to observe the Earth. These
breakthroughs will aid NASA researchers in their quest to explore
the farthest reaches of the universe.

“Without new technology and new materials, we can’t go
forward. We need new materials, designs, and solutions,” said
Artur Chmielewski, manager of JPL Space Inflatables Technology.
“We need very light, powerful telescopes that can peer deep into
cosmos and look for Earth-like planets around other stars.”

An important step in the technology development process is
space testing of prototype inflatable systems. A past test
program of inflatable technology, the Inflatable Antenna
Experiment, deployed by the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1996
provided significant data on the performance of inflatable
systems. The 14-meter (about 46-foot) inflatable antenna was
deployed and inflated for several hours in space. This
successful demonstration of a tennis court-size inflatable
structure in space has generated a lot of interest in the use of
this promising new technology. Now, scientists are planning on-
orbit tests to develop the technology further.

One of the first space applications of gossamer technology
will be the Advanced Radio Interferometry between Space and Earth
(ARISE) mission, which will use a high- resolution imaging
technique called Space Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI).
An orbiting 25-meter (82-foot) inflatable radio telescope will be
used in conjunction with ground telescopes to take pictures of
space phenomena, such as neighborhoods around black holes, with a
resolution 3,000 times better than that offered by the Hubble
Space Telescope.

Innovators such as JPL’s Dr. Mark Dragovan say that
inflatable technology is the wave of the future. “Lightweight,
flexible inflatable materials will someday replace traditional
steel and glass materials on space antennas and telescopes to the
point that the whole telescope will consist of a reflector and
detector as thin as plastic kitchen wrap,” he said. “The
challenge for NASA is to launch structures that are one hundred
times lower density than the Hubble Space Telescope. If the
telescope is extremely low-mass, then one can make it very large
and inexpensive in our quest to put big eyes in the sky.”

Inflatables have a major advantage over mechanical
structures because even in the most modern telescopes hundreds of
pounds of steel and glass support a very thin reflecting surface
that does all the work in collecting light from the cosmos. The
alternative to these massive structures is inflatables, which are
often 10 times less expensive, can be tightly packed into small
canisters, and are lower mass, allowing launches on smaller,
cheaper rockets.

The space applications for antennas many times the size of
today’s mechanical orbiting antennas include satellites for deep
space and mobile communications, Earth observations, astronomical
observations, and space-based radar. Solar-powered sails thinner
than human hair for propelling spacecraft to the stars; sunshades
the size of a soccer field for space telescopes; small flexible
devices that make cellular phones obsolete; inflatable habitats
for the moon or Mars; 24-meter (80-foot) antennas that can be
held by one hand — are all possible, according to scientists at

Future work on inflatables will concentrate on the areas of
materials research, development of optical-quality telescopes and
huge solar sail structures.

The Gossamer Spacecraft Initiative is managed jointly by JPL
and NASA’s Langley Research Center, Hampton, Virginia. NASA’s
Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C., has overall program
management responsibility. Managed for NASA by the California
Institute of Technology, JPL is the lead U.S. center for robotic
exploration of the solar system.

Information and images of space inflatables are available at