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NASA ‘sunflower’ project to cast shade on stars for planets photo shooting (PHOTOS)

Published time: March 25, 2014 17:59

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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It takes more than just a camera to shoot a photoset of a star, so NASA, in its hunt for images of exoplanets, is building a huge starshade to assist telescopes. The sunflower-shaped spacecraft will block light from bright stars.

The starshade would operate in conjunction with a space-based telescope. Controllers would position it between the telescope and the star that’s being observed. The star shade then blocks the starlight before it reaches the telescope’s mirrors.

Without the much brighter starlight, light coming from exoplanets orbiting the star would be visible enough to allow astronomers to photograph them. This process is known as starlight suppression.

Without the technology, picking up the light of a dim planet from a star which is billions of times brighter is like looking for a space needle in a cosmic haystack.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

But with the space sunflower astronomers could take pictures of exoplanets – planets just like our Earth – that might provide clues as to whether they support life.

“Less light bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images of the planets without being overwhelmed by starlight, we can use a pre-existing telescope to take the pictures,” said Stuart Shaklan, the lead engineer on the project for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The devil is in the detail, however, and it’s the starshade’s flower-shaped petals that make it so effective.

“The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves,” Shaklan said.

But there is still much work to be done, if NASA is to make this idea a reality and allow them to photograph Earth-size rocky exoplanets.

“Our current task is figuring out how to unfurl the starshade in space so that all the petals end up in the right place, with millimeter accuracy,” said Jeremy Kasdin, a Princeton University researcher and principal investigator of the starshade project.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Comments (10)


Pete Craig 18.04.2014 02:38

The Apollo and Shuttle programs gave us something to be proud of, but now we are stuck with this. Nasa is finished . Only thing left are exhibits to remind us what real human spirit and vision could do. Very sad..


calle 27.03.2014 07:38

I think space exploration and the search for life other then our own is a grand and very human exploration. One of the few things we human do that I can actually connect with. Im happy to pay some taxes for it. Especially since its not alot of money compared to what all the wars cost. Im more sceptical to pay taxes so a country can put troops where they shouldnt, or spy on eachother. Space exploration FTW!


DoAsk DoTell 26.03.2014 08:36

Nasa = another militarish black holes from taxpayers? Next, are the scientists planning to suck America dry for their pet projects?

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