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Lockheed Martin's new SPIDER imaging tech could lead to smaller, more powerful telescopes

Lockheed Martin this week unveiled new technology that may revolutionize the telescope as we know it. Called Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaissance (or SPIDER), the technology is based on the technique of interferometry that uses a thin array of tiny lenses to collect light instead of the large bulky lenses used in existing telescope technology.

SPIDER does away with the large telescopes and complex mirror-based optics and replaces them with thousands of tiny lenses that are connected to PICs: silicon-chip photonic integrated circuits. According to Lockheed Martin, these PICs combine the light in pairs to form interference fringes, which are then measured and used to create a digital image. This technology allows Lockheed Martin to increase the resolution of a telescope while maintaining a thin disk shape.

Unlike conventional telescopes that take years to construct, Lockheed Martin’s PICs are easy to produce using a laser printing process that takes only a few weeks. Because they rely on integrated circuits, they also do not contain large lenses and mirrors that need to be polished and aligned. This characteristic simplifies their deployment as technicians do not have to worried about misalignment in orbit.

SPIDER also offers up to 99% savings in size and weight when compared to traditional telescopes and are both energy efficient and easily scalable in size. This flexibility makes its possible for Lockheed Martin to move beyond the cylindrical telescope and create squares, hexagons, and even conformal concepts.

Lockheed is developing this technology using funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and assistance from researchers at University of California, Davis. The SPIDER design is still in the early stages of development, with five to ten years of work required before the technology is matured and ready for widespread deployment. Besides its use in space-based applications where the small size and light payload of SPIDER is highly desirable, the technology also could be used for safety sensors in automobiles, military reconnaissance, and even targeting instrumentation in aircraft, helicopters, and boats.