(TMU) — Have you ever wondered what exoplanets outside our solar system look like? We’ve seen countless artist depictions, but imagine seeing the actual planet, its colors, atmosphere, continental structures, and even its vegetation.
NASA announced this week that they are funding research for just such an endeavor—a conceptual telescope called a solar gravitational lens (SGL)—that would allow us to observe distant alien worlds with astonishing resolution.
The project’s goal, according to NASA’s description, is to “directly image a habitable Earth-like exoplanet within our stellar neighborhood” with a resolution of around 25 km, which is “enough to see surface features and signs of habitability.”
The new announcement of an SGL follows Phase I and II funding by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.
Slava Turyshev, a physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who has written about and studied such technology, describes how an SGL works:
“In the strong interference region of the SGL, this light is greatly amplified, forming the Einstein ring around the Sun, representing a distorted image of the extended source.”
This isn’t the only large-scale astronomical endeavor by NASA that could yield unbelievable new data on alien worlds. The James Webb Space Telescope, when it launches in 2021, will be capable of seeing planets (in high-contrast, mid-infrared range) that are 10 million to 100 million times fainter than we can currently image. Webb will also study the atmospheres of these planets and look for traces of oxygen and other “techno-signatures” of industrial gases.
The new phases of the SGL research provided three critical innovations.
According to NASA, they have: “1) proven the feasibility of high-resolution, multipixel imaging of a habitable exoplanet; (2) devised a swarm architecture for smallsats to explore the interstellar medium; (3) designed the low-cost solar array propulsion to achieve the exit velocity from the solar system needed for the mission.”
The remaining technological hurdle is devising a way to ferry a “meter-class telescope with a solar coronagraph” to a great distance from the Sun. Slava Turyshev, physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has suggested the solution may be deploying a “swarm architecture for smallsats” powered by solar sails that can image “multiple planets/moons of an exosolar system” simultaneously.
While it could be many years until we begin to receive data and images from these projects, it’s exciting to know that in our lifetime we will likely see the “surface features” of alien exoplanets and be able to observe their vegetation patterns.
Who knows—we may even pick up atmospheric traces or “signs of habitability” that tell us who lives there.