The Starshade is NASA’s latest design in a cutting-edge effort to take pictures of planets orbiting stars far from the sun.
The flower-shaped spacecraft’s goal is to make detecting and imaging exoplanets much, much easier. Despite the fact that astronomers have been indirectly detecting exoplanets for more than 15 years, actually taking a picture of one has been an incredibly difficult task thanks to the often-blinding lights of their parent stars.
In conjunction with a space-based telescope, NASA’s starshade will position itself precisely between the telescope and the star that’s being observed, blocking the starlight before it even reaches the telescope’s mirrors. Light coming from exoplanets orbiting the star would be visible and astronomers would finally be able to take actual pictures of them.
These images could provide clues as to whether or not such distant worlds could support life as we know it.
Dr. Stuart Shaklan, JPL’s lead engineer on the starshade project, says “The flower-shaped petals are part of what makes the starshade so effective. The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves. 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.”
Princeton researcher and principal investigator of the starshade project Professor Jeremy Kasdin has assembled a team that will create a smaller scale starshade at Princeton to verify that the design blocks the light as predicted by the computer simulations. Also, to measure its accuracy, a team at JPL will test the deployment of a near-full scale starshade system in the lab.
Tell Congress that you support doubling NASA’s funding so that they can bring these projects to light faster and without budget worries.