The ability of space telescopes to see into nascent protostellar systems and even further into our universe is driven by the size of their deployable light collection area. While large monolithic mirrors typically weigh tons, inflatable membrane mirrors present a scalable, ultralightweight alternative. Leveraging decades of advances in adaptive optics technology, the possibility of a well-corrected 20 meter-class space observatory such as the Orbiting Astronomical Satellite for Investigating Stellar Systems (OASIS) is strikingly feasible. However, with great aperture size, comes great metrology requirements. Membrane reflectors are characteristically structured as one transparent and one metallized polymer membrane sealed around a steel tensioning ring. The inflated surface does not naturally conform to a known or prescribed conic but an approximate Hencky surface. Furthermore, multiple internal reflections and polarization interactions between the dielectric and metal layers disturb coherent light that probes it. A non-contact, full-aperture testing method is needed and further, one that can test highly varying membranes after thermoforming too. We present our method in obtaining the absolute shape of thermally formed, inflatable reflectors for space telescopes. Our work measures a 1-meter prototype of the OASIS primary inflatable mirror. Evolving from laser distance scanning to photogrammetry to deflectometry, our survey of metrology techniques for inflatable membrane optics is discussed.
Next generation space telescopes with apertures >10m will require novel technologies to permit lightweight primaries to operate at the diffraction limit in the optical regime. One solution is to construct a telescope from a lightweight, membrane primary, which is holographically corrected for surface distortions, in situ. We have demonstrated the correction of >10,000 waves of error in a 1-m diameter primary having an areal mass of just 17 grams per square meter.
An intensive investigation has been carried out to study the surface profiles obtained as a result of the large deformations of pressurized membranes. The study shows that the inflated membrane shapes may have the requisite surface accuracy for use in future large space apertures. Both analytical and experimental work have been carried out. On the analytical side, the classical work of Hencky on flat circular membranes was extended to eliminate the limitations it imposed; namely a lateral non-follower pressure with no pre-stress. The result is a computer program for the solution of the pressurized circular membrane problem. The reliability of the computer program is demonstrated via verification against FAIM, a nonlinear finite element solver developed primarily for the analysis of inflated membrane shapes. The experimental work includes observations made by Veal on the (W-shaped) deviations between the membrane deflected shape and the predicted profile. More recent measurements have been made of the deformations of pressurized flat circular and parabolic membranes using photogrammetric techniques. The surface error quantification analyses include the effect of material properties, geometric properties, loading uncertainties, and boundary conditions. These effects are very easily handled by the special FEM code FAIM which had recently been enhanced to predict the on-orbit dynamics, RF, and solar concentration characteristics of inflatable parabolic antennas/reflectors such as the IAE that flew off the space shuttle Endeavour in May 1996. The results of measurements have been compared with analyses and their ramifications on precision-shape, large-aperture parabolic space reflectors are discussed. Results show that very large space apertures with surface slope error accuracies on the order to space reflectors are discussed. Results show that very large space apertures with surface slope error accuracies on the order of 1 milliradian or less are feasible. Surface shape accuracies of less than 1 mm RMS have been attained on ground measurements.