doing the math for you since 1994

The Future of Space Telescopes: Embracing Soft and Liquid Structures

The Future of Space Telescopes: Embracing Soft and Liquid Structures



The Future of Space Telescopes: Embracing Soft and Liquid Structures

Everything built on Earth, from towering skyscrapers to the tiniest 3D-printed models, needs support structures to defy the relentless pull of gravity. This fundamental principle is deeply ingrained in our engineering practices, and it shapes how we approach construction and design. Just as 3D printers need support structures to create complex shapes, our earthly constructions are bound by the same necessity. Douglas Adams once quipped, “Gravity…They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later.” (Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). Indeed, gravity is the ultimate party pooper.

But what if we took this party to a venue where gravity isn’t on the guest list? Enter space—the final frontier and a place where our old friend gravity barely has a say. This opens up fascinating possibilities for rethinking how we design and build structures in space, particularly space telescopes. Traditionally, space telescopes have been built like the sturdy but cumbersome furniture from a flat-pack store: lots of solid, rigid parts that need careful assembly and just the right kind of wrench. While these have served us well, they come with inherent limitations, particularly in terms of temperature sensitivity and the need for rigid support.

The Baggage of Solid Structures

  1. Temperature Tantrums: Solid structures are like the drama queens of space. They expand, contract, and sometimes throw a fit when temperatures swing from one extreme to another. In the harsh environment of space, where the thermostat is stuck on “unpredictable,” this can be a real problem for maintaining the precision of a telescope.
  2. Weight Woes: Solid structures often require heavy materials and intricate designs to ensure they don’t fall apart. This means more weight, which translates to higher launch costs and complex logistics. It’s like trying to fit a grand piano into a tiny apartment: expensive and tricky.
  3. Deployment Drama: Getting a solid structure from Earth to its perfect spot in space can feel like a high-stakes game of Tetris. These structures need to be compact enough to fit into a rocket and then expand or assemble correctly once in orbit, a process ripe with opportunities for things to go hilariously wrong.

A Revolutionary Rethink: Soft and Liquid Structures

Now, let’s shake things up with a wild idea: what if space telescopes were built with soft or even liquid structures? In the absence of gravity, we can leverage the unique properties of these materials to create more efficient and adaptable designs. Picture this: a telescope that flows into place rather than being forced into it.

Perks of Going with the Flow
  1. Shapeshifting Wonders: In the absence of gravity, liquids naturally adopt the shape with the smallest surface area. This means we can have highly adaptive and resilient structures that aren’t prone to the hissy fits caused by temperature changes.
  2. Weightless Wonders: Soft and liquid materials can be significantly lighter than their solid counterparts. This translates to lower payload weights, making launches more economical and less complex. Think of it as replacing your grand piano with a collapsible keyboard.
  3. Deployment Delight: Deploying a liquid-based structure could be as simple as releasing it in space and letting it do its thing. This minimizes the risks associated with mechanical assembly and deployment. Imagine unpacking a telescope like popping a water balloon and watching it magically take shape.
  4. Durability Dream: Liquid structures can absorb and dissipate energy more effectively, potentially offering greater resistance to impacts from micro-meteoroids and other space debris. It’s like having a built-in shock absorber for your precious telescope.

Hurdles to Jump Over

Of course, every great idea has its “but what ifs.” Here are some challenges we’ll need to tackle:

  1. Material Mysteries: We need materials that can maintain their integrity and functionality in the vacuum and temperature extremes of space. These materials must also be able to hold a stable shape for accurate observations.
  2. Control Chaos: Ensuring that liquid structures can be precisely controlled and manipulated to form the exact shapes required for a telescope is a significant technical hurdle. We’re talking about the difference between a finely crafted sculpture and a toddler’s finger painting.
  3. Stability Struggles: Liquid structures might be more susceptible to external forces, such as solar radiation pressure or space weather. Ensuring long-term stability and developing maintenance protocols will be essential. It’s like making sure your Jell-O mold doesn’t wobble at the family picnic.


The concept of using soft or liquid structures for space telescopes is like a breath of fresh air in the stuffy room of traditional engineering. By embracing the unique conditions of space, we can unlock new possibilities for designing telescopes that are lighter, more adaptable, and potentially more resilient than their solid counterparts. While there are significant challenges to address, the potential benefits make this an exciting avenue for future research and development.

As we continue to explore the cosmos, rethinking our fundamental assumptions about construction and design in space could lead to revolutionary advancements. Just as 3D printing has transformed manufacturing on Earth, the use of soft and liquid structures could herald a new era of innovation in space exploration. So, here’s to thinking outside the solid box and letting our imaginations—and our telescopes—flow freely in the vastness of space.

Keep up, get in touch.