Space sunflower may help snap pictures of planets

Mar 21, 2014 by Whitney Clavin
The prototype starshade, a giant structure designed to block the glare of stars so that future space telescopes can take pictures of planets.

A spacecraft that looks like a giant sunflower might one day be used to acquire images of Earth-like rocky planets around nearby stars. The prototype deployable structure, called a starshade, is being developed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

The hunt is on for planets that resemble Earth in size, composition and temperature. Rocky planets with just the right temperature for liquid water—not too hot, not too cold—could be possible abodes for life outside our solar system. NASA's Kepler mission has discovered hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, called exoplanets, some of which are a bit larger than Earth and lie in this comfortable "Goldilocks" zone.

Researchers generally think it's only a matter of time before we find perfect twins of Earth. The next step would be to image and characterize their spectra, or , which provide clear clues about whether those worlds could support life. The starshade is designed to help take those pictures of planets by blocking out the overwhelmingly bright light of their stars. Simply put, the starshade is analogous to holding your hand up to the sun to block it while taking a picture of somebody.

The proposed starshade could launch together with a telescope. Once in space, it would separate from the rocket and telescope, unfurl its petals, then move into position to block the light of stars.

Explore further: How can dark matter cause chaos on Earth every 30 million years?

Related Stories

Kepler marks five years in space

Mar 07, 2014

(Phys.org) —Five years ago today, on March 6, 2009, NASA's Kepler Space Telescope rocketed into the night skies above Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida to find planets around other stars, called ...

NASA cries planetary 'bonanza' with 715 new worlds

Feb 26, 2014

NASA on Wednesday announced a torrent of new planet discoveries, hailing a "bonanza" of 715 worlds now known outside the solar system thanks to the Kepler space telescope's planet-hunting mission.

First planet found around solar twin in star cluster

Jan 15, 2014

Astronomers have used ESO's HARPS planet hunter in Chile, along with other telescopes around the world, to discover three planets orbiting stars in the cluster Messier 67. Although more than one thousand ...

'Super-Earths' may be dead worlds

Feb 26, 2014

In the last 20 years the search for Earth-like planets around other stars has accelerated, with the launch of missions like the Kepler space telescope. Using these and observatories on the ground, astronomers ...

Recommended for you

Dusty substructure in a galaxy far far away

21 hours ago

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics (MPA) have combined high-resolution images from the ALMA telescopes with a new scheme for undoing the distorting effects of a powerful gravitational ...

ALMA disentangles complex birth of giant stars

21 hours ago

A research group led by Aya Higuchi, a researcher at Ibaraki University, conducted observations of the massive-star forming region IRAS 16547-4247 with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). ...

Image: The tumultuous heart of the Large Magellanic Cloud

Mar 31, 2015

A scene of jagged fiery peaks, turbulent magma-like clouds and fiercely hot bursts of bright light. Although this may be reminiscent of a raging fire or the heart of a volcano, it actually shows a cold cosmic ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

nevermark
not rated yet Mar 21, 2014
Yes, planet pictures please.
The Singularity
not rated yet Mar 24, 2014
Why so big? make a smaller shade & a smaller scope, save millions, same result.
GSwift7
not rated yet Mar 24, 2014
Why so big?


The telescope will actually be placed very far away from the occulter (many kilometers).

here's the wiki:

http://en.wikiped..._Mission

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.