Lockheed Martin Closes In On Shrinking the Telescope

Artist’s conception of SPIDER telescope in orbit (Credit: Lockheed Martin)

PALO ALTO, Calif. (Lockheed Martin PR) — Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMT) today revealed the first images from an experimental, ultra-thin optical instrument, showing it could be possible to shrink space telescopes to a sliver of the size of today’s systems while maintaining equivalent resolution.

Weighing 90 percent less than a typical telescope, the Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-Optical Reconnaissance (SPIDER) opens a path for extremely lightweight optical instruments, allowing for more hosted payloads or smaller spacecraft. More broadly, the sensor technology has applications for aircraft and other vehicles—anywhere that depends on small optical sensors. The future could see UAVs with imagers laid flat underneath their wings, and cars could have imaging sensors that are flush against their grills.

The SPIDER project has roots in research funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Lockheed Martin independently completed this phase of research at its Advanced Technology Center (ATC).

“This is generation-after-next capability we’re building from the ground up,” said Scott Fouse, ATC vice president. “Our goal is to replicate the same performance of a space telescope in an instrument that is about an inch thick. That’s never been done before. We’re on our way to make space imaging a low-cost capability so our customers can see more, explore more and learn more.”

The system uses tiny lenses to feed optical data divided and recombined in a photonic integrated circuit (PIC), which was originally designed for telecommunications at the University of California, Davis. Using these chips in a different way, Lockheed Martin researchers unlocked new potential for ultra-thin telescopes using a technique called interferometric imaging.

The tests involved a PIC aligned to a series of 30 lenses, each smaller than a millimeter across. An optical system simulated the distance from space to the ground, where scenes were illuminated and rotated. The first image included a standard bar test pattern, and the second image showed the overhead view of a complex rail yard.

The lenses and PIC comprise one section of a full instrument to be assembled in the next project phase. The team plans to increase the resolution and field of view in future phases.

The initial findings from this project were presented today at the Pacific Rim Conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO-Pacific Rim) in Singapore.


About Lockheed Martin

Headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland, Lockheed Martin is a global security and aerospace company that employs approximately 97,000 people worldwide and is principally engaged in the research, design, development, manufacture, integration and sustainment of advanced technology systems, products and services.


  • Aerospike

    That tech could also be applied to other camera system, like professional photography and smartphones!
    Without the bulky and heavy optics of traditional systems, smartphone cams could finally get cameras with a larger aperture than the tiny ones we have today (even on the most expensive phones).
    In theory, the whole backside of your phone could become your cameras lens(es)!

    (of course first they would have to shrink that tech down even further, because no one would like an inch thick phone 😉 )

  • Paul451

    If you look at even the optimal simulated images in their research papers, it doesn’t really compare to conventional cameras, the image quality is lower than any equivalent aperture camera. Interferometry is about element separation, not image quality. What this tech does do is greatly lowers the mass and depth for the same size collecting area, for very large aperture telescopes.

    The more you scale down, the less useful it becomes.

    The more you want visually clear images, the less useful it becomes.

  • publiusr

    You want as big a light bucket as possible.

    This article shows there are folks who still just don’t get it in their heads that larger conventional equipment atop larger LVs is the way to go. Webb is expensive because you have to fold it a dozen different ways.

  • IamGrimalkin

    It looks like they are doing a big light bucket, it’s just not as deep so it doesn’t have to be as heavy.

  • Paul451

    Spending $30b per decade for two or three decades, to develop a launcher that lets you save a few billion developing JWST?

    “Larger LVs”, at any expense, is not a solution, “low cost” is the solution.

  • therealdmt

    1:44 ~ 1:54
    It’s a little confusing the way he says it, but he’s saying the diameter (light bucket) will stay the same. It’s everything else that shrinks (no lenses, no secondary mirror, no optical assembly tube, just a thin flat disc)

  • therealdmt
  • therealdmt

    “That tech could also be applied to other camera systems, like…”

    Self driving cars and other autonomous vehicles

    Targeting systems for laser weapons mounted on UAVs for hunting down humans

  • publiusr

    We’ll see just how this plays out…There are times mass helps you.

  • duheagle

    Larger LV’s and low cost are, by no means, mutually exclusive. You simply can’t develop larger LV’s according to the Paleo Space, Cost-Plus playbook. Given where things are going these days (Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, BFR/BFS, New Armstrong) increased capacity and decreased cost seem, in fact, to be mutually complementary.

  • duheagle

    Not for nothing have I dubbed you one of the finest engineering minds of the mid-20th Century.

    Webb’s origami-like design was always a given. The biggest contributor to its epic cost overruns has been Northrop Grumman’s years-long soap opera anent building a refrigeration unit for the imaging element.

  • duheagle

    Yes, anchoring a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier would be one of those times, for instance. Building spacecraft? Not so much.

  • publiusr

    Monolithic optics don’t have to worry as much about jamming Webb has more moving parts than a Michael Bey Transformer–and yes–folding complexity can increase costs.

    Not everyone in astronomy hates on SLS