Jeremy Kasdin: The flower-shaped starshade that might help us detect Earth-like planets

Speaker

Jeremy Kasdin: Aerospace engineer at Princeton University.

Summary

In the next decade, Jeremy wants us to build a space telescope that can take pictures of Earth-like planets in distant galaxies. Astronomers now believe that every star in the galaxy has a planet, and up to a fifth might have an earth-like planet that can sustain life. The ‘pale blue dot’ picture of Earth is difficult to take from a long way away, because the nearby beaming star overwhelms the telescope making it impossible to see the planets. Jeremy’s colleagues are working on technology to block out the extreme light of the sun and instead focus on the planet.

One idea is similar to the concept of an eclipse – where a closer object blocks the star, reducing its interference to a ring or corona effect. This is similar to putting a hand over a spotlight so you can see more clearly. Translating it into space: we’d build a large portable screen, open it between a telescope and a star, then take a picture. However, the corona of a circular sunshade still obscures the planet. Instead the sun shade is designed with a flower like pattern, to control the diffraction of light and prevent it washing out the picture. This should allow clearer pictures to be taken of distant planets.

The star shade is as big as half a football field, and has to be flown 50,000 km away from the telescope and then held right in the shadow. His engineers have been designing the system for unfurling and moving the shade.

His hope is that once completed we can take pictures of the planets around nearby stars, then use the information to analyse them and investigate further. By building a giant flower-shaped star-shade and seeing other stars’ pale blue dot, our understanding of the world will change.

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