(ORDO NEWS) — Direct observation of exoplanets is extremely difficult. If alien life 100 light-years away wanted to see Earth as a single pixel, it would need a telescope with a primary mirror 90 kilometers in diameter.
But there is a way not only to see small exoplanets, but also to map their surface. To do this, the researchers propose to turn the Sun into a giant lens.
Every object that has mass warps spacetime, causing light to bend around it, and this can create a phenomenon called a gravitational lens, allowing us to see what’s behind it.
Our Sun, being the closest large object, can be used as a telescope lens to achieve incredible magnification of distant objects. This suggests the Solar Gravitational Lens project.
The implementation of this project would make it possible to see continents and islands (and possibly even cities, if they exist) on exoplanets, but this is fraught with many problems.
For the system to work, the solar lens and the rest of the telescope must be at a distance of 650 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun, or 650 astronomical units (AU).
Voyager 1 is the most distant human-made object from Earth. He has been traveling for 45 years and is at a distance of 157 AU. from the sun. The solar gravitational lens should send something four times as far and in a much shorter amount of time.
A new paper, available on the arXiv preprint server, shows exactly what is needed to make this project happen, and what the researchers are already working on right now.
“We realized that most of the technologies required to carry out a mission on the SGL either already exist or are under active development”.
“These include solar sail propulsion, onboard power and communications, all of which are now capable of supporting the mission with even more exciting capabilities coming soon.”
The team aims for a spacecraft with a small telescope to cover this distance in less than 25 years, which means achieving higher speed than any spacecraft we have launched to the edge of the solar system.
To do this, the team plans to use a solar sail. It will be necessary to bring the spacecraft close enough to the Sun, and then move away from it at high speed.
This assumes that the target must be known in advance, since the telescope will not be able to go and get an image of another object.
In addition, the spacecraft must be light because solar sails require a very large surface area to mass ratio.
The team believes the best approach would be to use a nanosatellite that can be assembled into a telescope in space.
“One of the most interesting challenges was to scale down some of the systems and instruments to fit within the limits imposed by solar sailing. We need a small, capable and inexpensive spacecraft – this is what allows us to complete the mission”.
The project is exciting and will help explore other worlds in the Milky Way. If NASA decides to implement it, then its launch may take place in the near future.
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