Could laser light be used to shape and polish an asteroid to high optical standards? That’s the question raised in an imaginative essay in Physics Today that posits the creation, a century from now, of the Asteroid Belt Astronomical Telescope (ABAT). It’s science fiction today, part of the series of speculations that the magazine has been running to explore possible futures, but what a concept for an SF novel, and perhaps someday real astronomy (thanks to Centauri Dreams reader Klaus Seidensticker for sending me the link).
Author Robert Austin (Florida Polytechnic University) creates a backstory involving a “self-described over-the-hill assistant professor at Purdue University” who uses a research grant to polish a 1-centimeter sphere of pyrolytic carbon magnetically levitated in a vacuum. He achieves the needed flat optical surface along with a reflective hemispherical ‘bump’ on the object’s backside that can be used to reorient the mirror by photon pressure.
Soon the idea of using lasers to form and manipulate mirror components takes off, and by the end of the 21st Century an actual 2-meter asteroid is shaped and steered, using equipment originally developed for asteroid mining. The Asteroid Belt Astronomical Telescope that grows out of all this will eventually reach billions of mirror facets in imaging arrays in space, a 5 AU diameter astronomical mirror. Austin’s essay is written as a scientific report from the future, at a time 100 years from now when ABAT is 1% finished but already achieving stunning imagery.
Image: The Asteroid Belt Astronomical Telescope (ABAT) focuses light from laser-polished asteroids onto dual imaging arrays above and below the solar system; other intense laser pulses maneuver the arrays to different locations, thus allowing ABAT to point at multiple celestial targets. Asteroid ablation residue corralled into a pair of Devil’s Footprints shields the focal regions from solar illumination. Credit: Robert Austin/Physics Today.
The ‘Devil’s Footprint’ reference in the caption above is to Munich’s Frauenkirche, which has a part of the floor in which no windows are visible — how it got its name is an entertaining part of the essay, which I’ll send you to for more. The point is that asteroid residue is a helpful way to block sunlight, and by the era depicted in this piece, asteroid mining is assumed to have become so widespread an activity that industrial operations at 5 AU are all but routine.
Bob Forward would, I’m sure, have loved the mega-engineering involved in creating something like this which, if built, would be the most ambitious scientific project ever undertaken. Austin’s ABAT would see its imaging arrays maneuvered through coordinated pulses of laser light, creating minuscule torques to turn each facet in the desired direction. As for enabling this vast cloud of technology to produce the needed data, here’s Austin’s take, based as is the whole article on the assumption of yet to be developed technologies:
Developing a conventional monolithic sensor array to span ABAT’s focal plane would be impractical, so Kim’s team hit upon a new approach based on diatoms, the microscopic organisms with silica skeletons that hold such a special place in the hearts of nanotechnologists. Group biologists genetically engineered diatoms to produce several specialized organs. Some of the organs convert light to electrical signals. Some store the microwave input power necessary for operating the array. Still others use CPS (celestial positioning system) signals to determine three-dimensional location, measure time, and digitally encode the data for transmission.
The result: Trillions of self-reproducing sensors are grown in a vat and deployed in space, manipulated as clouds of microscopic optical sensors.
Image readout begins when maser beams wake the sensors and provide transmission instructions. Guided by the electromagnetic field of the masers, the sensors align themselves toward a receiving antenna to which they beam their data. The vast data set is then relayed to ABAT’s brain, which puts the information together to form an image.
So there you have it, an array of 10 billion asteroids polished into mirror facets, all coordinated through artificial intelligence in a century-long project that might get underway, perhaps, by 2100. It’s a fascinating speculation, and I like the way Physics Today presents these explorations, in the form of articles you might read in the future issue that explains the project at hand. It makes for convincing reading, like good science fiction, and at times, I confess, it does make the hair stand up a bit on the back of the neck. Because imagine what we could see with something this vast, and imagine how much bigger still it could grow.
Image: Imaginary view. The exoplanet Gliese 832c as the future ABAT might see it early in the process of construction. Credit: Robert Austin/Physics Today.
If we ever do begin to see exoplanets at the level of detail promised in the artist’s rendering above, it’s worth speculating on what that might mean for interstellar exploration. Breakthrough Starshot puts the first interstellar crossing somewhere in the latter half of this century, assuming major breakthroughs in laser array technologies and engineering. Would a new ability to see exoplanets like this put a damper on future mission ideas, or would the view of prospective targets actually act as an incentive to get a payload into their systems?