Diffractive lenses offer two potential advantages for very large aperture space telescopes; very loose surface-figure tolerances and physical implementation as thin, flat optical elements. In order to actually realize these advantages one must be able to build large diffractive lenses with adequate optical precision and also to compactly stow the lens for launch and then fully deploy it in space.
We will discuss the recent fabrication and assembly demonstration of a 5m glass diffractive Fresnel lens at LLNL. Optical performance data from smaller full telescopes with diffractive lens and corrective optics show diffraction limited performance with broad bandwidths. A systems design for a 20m space telescope will be presented. The primary optic can be rolled to fit inside of the standard fairings of the Delta IV vehicle. This configuration has a simple deployment and requires no orbital assembly. A twenty meter visible telescope could have a significant impact in conventional astronomy with eight times the resolution of Hubble and over sixty times the light gathering capacity. If the light scattering is made acceptable, this telescope could also be used in the search for terrestrial planets.
Eyeglass is a very large aperture (25 - 100 meter) space telescope consisting of two distinct spacecraft, separated in space by several kilometers. A diffractive lens provides the telescope's large aperture, and a separate, much smaller, space telescope serves as its mobile eyepiece. Use of a transmissive diffractive lens solves two basic problems associated with very large aperture space telescopes; it is inherently fieldable (lightweight and flat, hence packagable and deployable) and virtually eliminates the traditional, very tight, surface shape tolerances faced by reflecting apertures. The potential drawback to use of a diffractive primary (very narrow spectral bandwidth) is eliminated by corrective optics in the telescope's eyepiece. The Eyeglass can provide diffraction-limited imaging with either single-band, multiband, or continuous spectral coverage.
Broadband diffractive telescopes have been built at LLNL and have demonstrated diffraction-limited performance over a 40% spectral bandwidth (0.48 - 0.72 μm). As one approach to package a large aperture for launch, a foldable lens has been built and demonstrated. A 75 cm aperture diffractive lens was constructed from 6 panels of 1 mm thick silica; it achieved diffraction-limited performance both before and after folding. This multiple panel, folding lens, approach is currently being scaled-up at LLNL. We are building a 5 meter aperture foldable lens, involving 72 panels of 700 μm thick glass sheets, diffractively patterned to operate as coherent f/50 lens.
Large aperture diffractive optics are needed in high power laser applications to protect against laser damage during operation and in space applications to increase the light gathering power and consequently the signal to noise. We describe the facilities we have built for fabricating meter scale diffractive optics and discuss several examples of these.