Ancient Code

Though it may sound like something out of a novel by the late Arthur C. Clarke — think 2001: A Space Odyssey with a new twist — NASA is indeed planning to hunt for distant “alien” planets, and the technology they’ll use is nothing short of groundbreaking.

According to LiveSciencethere’s a blueprint at the space agency for what’s known as a “starshade.” Here’s how it works:

“Such a mission would employ a space telescope and a separate craft flying about 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) ahead of it. This latter probe would be equipped with a large, flat, petaled shade designed to block starlight, potentially allowing the telescope to directly image orbiting alien worlds as small as Earth that would otherwise be lost in the glare.”

Imagine seeing this on a flyby to the Moon:

Michael Bottom, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, noted that all of the high-tech specifications of a starshade are indeed hard for the mind to grasp:

“The distances we’re talking about for the starshade technology are kind of hard to imagine.

“If the starshade were scaled down to the size of a drink coaster, the telescope would be the size of a pencil eraser, and they’d be separated by about 60 miles [100 kilometers].Now imagine those two objects are free-floating in space. They’re both experiencing these little tugs and nudges from gravity and other forces, and over that distance we’re trying to keep them both precisely aligned to within about 2 millimeters.”

NASA’s prototype starshade in action. (Via JPL/NASA)

The starshade concept actually goes back as far as the 1960s, when the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was underway, Popular Mechanics reports:

“They were considered for studying exoplanets, or planets outside of the solar system. Hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered since then, often using natural star-blocking techniques. The transit method, for example, relies on when planetary orbits place exoplanets in between the telescope and their stars.”

And while the starshade is still only in the prototype stage, much of the technology already exists within the U.S. space program, Phil Willems, manager of NASA’s Starshade Technology Development activity remarked:

“This to me is a fine example of how space technology becomes ever more extraordinary by building upon its prior successes. We use formation flying in space every time a capsule docks at the International Space Station. But Michael and Thibault have gone far beyond that, and shown a way to maintain formation over scales larger than Earth itself.”

While using a starshade to hunt for distant planets may be several years in the future, the early plans look incredibly promising and seem to suggest that we may one day discover things even science fiction never imagined possible. As Arthur C. Clarke himself once noted:

“The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.”

See the starshade in action below:

 


Featured Image Via JPL/NASA