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CIERA’s Mel Ulmer Leading Audacious Project to Unfurl World’s Largest Space Telescope

Roger Anderson for Northwestern Research News writes: Figuring out how to fit a 16-meter mirror into a four-meter hole was the easy part.

Two years before a NASA-led collaboration is set to launch the James Webb Space Telescope — with a collecting mirror 6.5 meters in diameter — Mel Ulmer, physics and astronomy, is researching the feasibility of putting that mirror into space.

Reflecting telescopes rely on concave mirrors to collect and focus light in a manner that has produced brilliant images, including those from the Hubble, which launched in 1990 with a 2.4-meter mirror.

“A major limitation to increasing the size of these telescopes is that the rockets used to launch them can only carry a solid monolithic mirror up to about four meters in diameter,” says Ulmer, a Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA) faculty member. “That means we are left to design a system that’s deployable, meaning it can change shape once it reaches space.”