The technology could be used more easily for radio-band signals. Because the wavelength is so much longer (about one centimeter, compared to nanometers in visible light), the mirror grains don't have to be as precisely controlled or aligned. This opens up Earth science applications such as earthquake detection and remote sensing of water and other phenomena. JPL's Darmindra Arumugam is investigating possible mechanisms for remote sensing with Orbiting Rainbows.
The JPL optical design team, including Scott Basinger and Mayer Rud, has been working on the adaptive optics techniques that would be needed by an Orbiting Rainbows telescope. So far, the team has been exploring reflective, refractive and diffractive versions of a telescope based on Orbiting Rainbows, with maximum sensitivity to one specific frequency.
Orbiting Rainbows has not yet been demonstrated in space. For a test in low-Earth orbit, the researchers would deploy a telescope with a small patch of particles, no larger than a bottle cap, to show that it can be trapped and shaped to reflect light. The next step would be to make many of these patches and synthesize an aperture with which to do imaging.
The project represents a new application of "granular matter," materials such as dust grains, powders and aerosols. Such materials are very light, can be produced at low-cost and could be useful to the space exploration community. In this particular project, the "glitter" may be tiny granules of metallic-coated plastic, quartz or some other material.
Orbiting Rainbows is currently in Phase II development through the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. It was one of five technology proposals chosen for continued study in 2014. In the current phase, Orbiting Rainbows researchers are conducting small-scale ground experiments to demonstrate how granular materials can be manipulated using lasers and simulations of how the imaging system would behave in orbit.
NIAC is a program of NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, located at the agency's headquarters in Washington. JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology for NASA.
For a complete list of the selected proposals and more information about NIAC, visit:
For more information about the Space Technology Mission Directorate, visit:
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.