NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory released a concept earlier this week for a new sunflower-shaped spaceship that will take actual photographs of planets outside our solar system.
While scientists have been able to detect planets for years, obtaining real photos hasn’t been possible due to the intense brightness of the stars those worlds orbit. However, the flower-shaped “starshade” spacecraft is designed to fix that problem.
The ship is actually a hybrid telescope/spaceship that has two essential parts: the flower portion, and a telescope portion that can detach and operate independently. (Think of it as a far more expensive and cooler version of Sony’s QX Smart Lenses that uses your smartphone in conjunction with a powerful lens.) NASA’s PlanetQuest site explains that the flower portion will position itself between the telescope component and the star it’s observing to block out the light before reaching the mirrors.
“With the starlight suppressed, light coming from exoplanets orbiting the star would be visible,” NASA explains. “Using this technology, astronomers would be able to take actual pictures of exoplanets—images that could provide clues as to whether such worlds could support life as we know it.”
[Editor’s note: …awesome, this is.]
And the spacecraft’s shape isn’t purely cosmetic, either.
“The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves,” said JPL lead engineer for starshade Dr. Stuart Shaklan. “Less light bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images of the planets without being overwhelmed by starlight.”
NASA is still quite a while away from making this concept a reality, but it’s definitely interesting to see it unfold. Check out JPL’s PlanetQuest site for a video demonstration of the starshade concept in action.