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NASA Telescope Idea Could Spot Vegetation on Distant Exoplanets

NASA says it could spot "surface features" and even "signs of habitability" on faraway planets.

4. 8. 20 by Victor Tangermann
Slava Turyshev
Image by Slava Turyshev

NASA is funding research for a conceptual telescope called a “solar gravitational lens” (SGL) that could allow us to observe distant exoplanets at an astonishing resolution — a futuristic endeavor that could help find out once and for all if we are alone in the universe.

The project received Phase I and II funding under the agency’s NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, an incubator for radically futuristic and otherworldly concepts.

The idea is to “directly image a habitable Earth-like exoplanet within our stellar neighborhood,” according to a description of the project. Over six months of observation, we could get a resolution of around 25 km, “enough to see surface features and signs of habitability.”

A NASA image accompanying the announcement shows an artist’s rendition of imagery the telescope could acquire — showing greenery on the surface of a distant planet.

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Albert Einstein first predicted 84 years ago that rays of light skirting the edges of the Sun converge into a lens at about 550 astronomical units (about 82 billion kilometers) away.

Slava Turyshev, physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and lead author of a related study uploaded to the preprint archive arXiv in February, suggests the phenomenon could allow us to get strikingly detailed images of distant Earth-like planets.

“In the strong interference region of the SGL, this light is greatly amplified, forming the Einstein ring around the Sun, representing a distorted image of the extended source,” reads the paper.

An image included in the NASA announcement even shows Turyshev’s depiction of what an exoplanet close-up could look like using a SGL.

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But there’s a significant hurdle we’d have to overcome. We’d have to carry a “meter-class telescope with a solar coronagraph” to an extraordinary distance from the Sun. For perspective, Voyager I is currently only about 123 astronomical units away from Earth having reached the edges of the solar system in 2012 — the furthest we’ve ever sent a man-made object.

To keep costs low and feasibility as high as possible, Turyshev suggests that a “swarm architecture for smallsats” with solar sails for power could fly out, along the SGL, to observe “multiple planets/moons of an exosolar system” at the same time.

READ MORE: Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravitational Lens Mission [NASA]

More on NASA’s NIAC program: NASA Funds Giant Radio Telescope Concept on Far Side of Moon

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