This approach has the potential to drastically reduce the cost of space telescopes, because it’s easier to build many small mirrors than it is to construct one big one. It’s also a lot more convenient to pack, launch, and deploy a swarm of devices than it is to blast an enormous structure—the James Webb Space Telescope, for example—off Earth.
The Orbiting Rainbows concept has rapidly developed since 1979, and it’s currently in Phase II development under NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program. In other words, it has been greenlit by NIAC for experimentation, and so far, the results are promising.
For example, a recent experiment led by Orbiting Rainbows co-investigator Grover Swartzlander revealed that the “speckle effect”—the chaotic light distortion inherent to a swarm-style telescope—could be mitigated by using multiple exposures.
Results of Swartzlander’s Orbiting Rainbows tests. Credit: NASA/JPL/YouTube.
"This is a major achievement," Quadrelli said, regarding Swartzlander’s study. "This demonstrates a highly controlled experiment in which we were able to do imaging in the visible light spectrum."
Orbiting Rainbows is still in the early days of development, and has several more empirical hoops to jump before it’s cleared for takeoff. But the mere idea of this wildly creative approach to studying the universe is enough to buoy on space dreamers for the moment. After all, to reiterate, this thing is a rainbow cloud of space glitter, hewn by laser beams, that can image distant alien worlds. NASA, you have truly outdone yourself with this brain gem.