A NASA scientist has an idea to snap incredible photos of planets in other star systems.
Being able to take a close look at these worlds would help, but we don't have any telescopes powerful enough. Now, though, Universe Today points to a hypothetical new telescope design that would use the Sun as a gigantic gravitational lens — so powerful that it could spot individual land masses on the surfaces of planets in other star systems.
Gravitational lensing is essentially using a powerful gravitational field like a magnifying lens. As light travels past a large object — in this case the Sun — it gets warped as if it were passing through rounded glass. A pair of physicists, one from NASA, demonstrate in a paper being considered for publication by the journal Physics Review D that this would give us enough light to see a clear view of exoplanets orbiting the nearby star Proxima Centauri.
"To directly observe and image an exoplanet we need access to very large telescopes," Slava Turyshev of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who worked on the paper, told Universe Today. "Thus, if we want to see our own Earth in just one pixel from a distance of 100 light-years, we need a telescope with ~90 kilometers in diameter."
They even simulated what an Earth-sized planet would look like through the telescope in a neighboring star system — and the level of detail is impressive.
This is all technically within the realm of possibility, according to Universe Today, but would be an immense undertaking. For one, the focal point of this gravitational lens — the point at which one might observe a clear image — would rest about 550 times the distance between the Sun and Earth.
That's a long way to go just to use a telescope, but it's certainly less of a trip than actually traveling to see these exoplanets in person.
READ MORE: If We Used the Sun as a Gravitational Lens Telescope, This is What a Planet at Proxima Centauri Would Look Like [Universe Today]
More on exoplanets: Finally, Scientists Find an Earth-Sized Exoplanet in its Star's Habitable Zone