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Giant Telescope Lenses Made In Space

NASA is thinking about how it might be possible to build or grow or manufacture lenses in space that would dwarf the scopes of Earth.

All liquids have an elastic-like force that holds them together at their surface. This force is called surface tension. It's what allows some insects to glide across water without sinking and gives water droplets their shape. On Earth, when droplets of water are small enough (2 mm or smaller), surface tension overcomes gravity and they remain perfectly spherical. If a droplet grows much larger, it gets squished under its own weight.

But in space, blobs of water and other liquids (after wobbling about) eventually assume a perfect spherical shape.

Edward Balaban, principal investigator of the Fluidic Telescope Experiment, or FLUTE, at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley teamed up with researchers at Ames, the agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, to explore whether it was possible to make high-precision lenses and mirrors in space using liquids.

"We thought, why not take advantage of the way liquids naturally behave in microgravity and apply it to the construction of large-scale telescopes or space-manufactured optical components that can have all kinds of uses," said Balaban. "In microgravity, liquids take on shapes that are useful for making lenses and mirrors, so if we make them in space, they could be used to build telescopes that are dramatically bigger than was previously thought possible."

(Via NASA.)

Arthur C. Clarke thought about an answer to this in his 1953 classic Childhood's end:

Then, without any warning, they were on a gallery high above a large circular chamber, perhaps a hundred metres across. As usual, there was no protective parapet, and for a moment Jan hesitated to go near the edge. But Vindarten was standing on the very brink, looking calmly downwards, so Jan moved cautiously forward to join him.
The floor was only twenty metres below — far, far too close. Afterwards, Jan was sure that his guide had not intended to surprise him, and was completely taken aback by his reaction. For he had given one tremendous yell and jumped backwards from the gallery’s edge, in an involuntary effort to hide what lay below. It was not until the muffled echoes of his shout had died away in the thick atmosphere that he steeled himself to go forward again.
It was lifeless, of course — not, as he had thought in that first moment of panic, consciously staring up at him. It filled almost all that great circular space, and the ruby light gleamed and shifted in its crystal depths.
It was a single giant eye...
His heart was still pounding violently as he stared down once more at that monstrous eye. Of course, it might have been a model, enormously enlarged as were microbes and insects in terrestrial museums. Yet even as he asked the question, Jan knew, with a sickening certainty, that it was no larger than life.
Vindarten could tell him little; this was not his field of knowledge, and he was not particularly curious. From the Overlord’s description, Jan built up a picture of a cyclopean beast living among the asteroidal rubble of some distant sun, its growth uninhibited by gravity, depending for food and life upon the range and resolving power of its single eye.
There seemed no limit to what Nature could do if she was pressed, and Jan felt an irrational pleasure at discovering something which the Overlords would not attempt. They had brought a full-sized whale from Earth — but they had drawn the line at this.

NASA researchers tried in 2021 to create a liquid lens on ZeroG parabolic flights.

During the flight researchers used pumps to push synthetic oil into a circular frame (about the size of a dollar coin), letting the liquid fill the gap and momentarily achieve the desired shape. The oils are similar to automotive oil, with different levels of viscosities – or goopiness – to try out which works better.


(FLUTE researchers capture data on ZeroG parabolic flights)

"Sure enough, in a few seconds we were able to create a free-standing liquid lens – until the plane lifted upwards again and gravity kicked in and the oils oozed out," said

Frank Herbert thought about using viscous liquids as lenses in his epochal Dune - see the entry for the hufhuf oil lens.

Update 15-Apr-2022: I forgot to mention the Liquid Mirror Telescope on Mars from Old Faithful (1934) by Raymond Z. Gallun. End update.

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