Space sunflower may help snap pictures of planets

March 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: Astronomers answer key question: How common are habitable planets?

Related Stories

First planet found around solar twin in star cluster

January 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 planets outside the ...

NASA cries planetary 'bonanza' with 715 new worlds

February 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.

'Super-Earths' may be dead worlds

February 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 have found numerous ...

Kepler marks five years in space

March 7, 2014

( —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 exoplanets, in ...

Recommended for you

What are white holes?

October 9, 2015

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?

Image: Pluto's blue sky

October 9, 2015

Pluto's haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn's moon ...

Blue skies, frozen water detected on Pluto

October 8, 2015

Pluto has blue skies and patches of frozen water, according to the latest data out Thursday from NASA's unmanned New Horizons probe, which made a historic flyby of the dwarf planet in July.

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

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.
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:


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.