NASA unveils ambitious new plan to detect signs of life on distant planets

(ORDO NEWS) — The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is known for supporting extraordinary ideas in the fields of astronomy and space exploration. Since its re-establishment in 2011, the institute has supported numerous projects through its three-phase program.

However, to date, only three projects have received funding under the third phase. One of them has just published a technical paper describing a mission to build a telescope that can efficiently observe biosignatures on nearby exoplanets using our own Sun’s gravitational lens.

The hallmark of Phase III is the $2 million in funding, which in this case went to JPL, whose scientist Slava Turyshev was the principal investigator for the first two phases of the project.

He has teamed up with The Aerospace Corporation to produce the latest white paper that details the mission concept and identifies which technologies already exist and which require further development.

However, there are several striking features of this mission design, one of which is detailed on the Centauri Dreams website.

Instead of launching a large ship that would take a long time to get anywhere, the proposed mission would launch several small cube satellites, which would then self-assemble on a 25-year journey to the solar gravitational lens (SGL) point.

This “point” is actually a straight line between the star around which the exoplanet is located and somewhere between 550-1000 AU on the other side of the Sun. This is a huge distance, much more than the measly 156 AU that Voyager 1 traveled in 44 years.

How can a spacecraft cover a distance three times as long, while spending almost half the time? It’s simple – it will dive (almost) into the Sun.

The use of gravitational recharge from the Sun is a tried and true method. The fastest human object ever created, the Parker Solar Probe, used just such a method.

However, acceleration to 25 AU per year – the expected speed with which this mission should move – is not so easy. And it would be even more difficult for a whole fleet of ships, not just one.

The first problem will be material – solar sails, which are the preferred method of propulsion, don’t work well when exposed to the intensity of the Sun that a gravity slingshot would require.

In addition, the electronics of the system must be much more resistant to radiation than current technology. However, both of these known problems have potential solutions that are being actively researched.

Another seemingly obvious problem is how to coordinate the passage of several satellites through such a grueling gravity maneuver and still allow them to connect in a coordinated way to eventually form a full-fledged spacecraft.

But, according to the authors of the article, in the 25-year journey to the observation point there will be more than enough time for the individual Cubesats to actively combine into a single whole.

The result of such unity could be a better image of an exoplanet, which humanity most likely will not get before a full-fledged interstellar mission.

The question of which exoplanet would be the best candidate will be the subject of heated debate if the mission moves forward, as more than 50 exoplanets have been discovered to date in the habitable zones of their stars. But this, of course, is not a guarantee.

The mission has received neither funding nor any indication that it will be carried out in the near future. In addition, many technologies need to be developed before such a mission becomes feasible.

But that’s how missions like this always start, and this one has more potential impact than most. With any luck, at some point in the next few decades, we will get as clear an image of a potentially habitable exoplanet as we are likely to get even in the medium term.

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