A conceptual space telescope having an aperture tens of meters wide and a focal length of hundreds of meters would be implemented as a group of six separate optical modules flying in formation: a primary-membrane-mirror module, a relay-mirror module, a focal-plane-assembly module containing a fast steering mirror and secondary and tertiary optics, a primary-mirror-figure-sensing module, a scanning-electron-beam module for controlling the shape of the primary mirror, and a sunshade module. Formation flying would make it unnecessary to maintain the required precise alignments among the modules by means of an impractically massive rigid structure. Instead, a control system operating in conjunction with a metrology system comprising optical and radio subsystems would control the firing of small thrusters on the separate modules to maintain the formation, thereby acting as a virtual rigid structure. The control system would utilize a combination of centralized- and decentralized-control methods according to a leader-follower approach.
The feasibility of the concept was demonstrated in computational simulations that showed that relative positions could be maintained to within a fraction of a millimeter and orientations to within several microradians.