NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts is renowned for supporting outside ideas in the astronomy and space exploration fields. Since its re-establishment in 2011, the institute has supported a variety of projects as part of its three-phase programme.
However, only three projects have received Phase III funding so far. And one of them just released a white paper describing a mission to obtain a telescope that could effectively observe biosignatures on nearby exoplanets using the gravitational lens of our own Sun.
The third phase gap comes with US$2 million in funding, which in this case went to JPL, whose scientist, Slava Turyshev, was the principal investigator in the first two phases of the project.
He teamed up with The Aerospace Corporation for this latest white paper, which describes a mission concept in more detail and defines what technologies already exist and what needs further development.
However, there are several special features of this mission design, one of which is described in detail in Centauri Dreams.
Instead of launching one large craft, which would take a long time to travel anywhere, the proposed mission would launch several smaller Cube-Sats and then self-assemble on a 25-year journey to the Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL) point.
That “point” is really a straight line between any star that is around the exoplanet and somewhere between 550-1000 AU on the other side of the Sun. That’s a tremendous distance, which Voyager 1 has taken 44 years to traverse 156 AU so far.
So how can a spacecraft achieve three times the distance while taking about half the time? Simple – it will (almost) dive into the sun.
A tried-and-true method is to use the gravitational boost from the Sun. The fastest man-made object ever built, the Parker Solar Probe, uses one such technology.
However, being increased to 25 AU annually, the speed at which this mission will have to travel, is not easy. And it would be even more challenging to have a fleet of ships, rather than just one.
The first problem would be physical – solar sails, which are the mission’s preferred method of propulsion, don’t do so well when subjected to the intensity of the Sun that would be required to catapult gravity.
In addition, the electronics on the system would have to be more radiation hardened than currently available technology. However, there are potential solutions under active research to both of these known problems.
Another seemingly obvious problem would be how to coordinate the passage of multiple satellites through such gut-wrenching gravitational maneuvers and yet incorporate them to effectively create a fully functional spacecraft in the end. be allowed to coordinate.
But according to the paper’s authors, the 25-year journey would be enough time to actively reconnect the single CubeSats into a cohesive whole up to the observation point.
What can result from that consolidated whole is a better image of an exoplanet that humanity is less likely to encounter than a full-fledged interstellar mission.
Which exoplanet will be the best candidate if the mission goes ahead will be a matter of hot debate, as more than 50 have been found in the habitable zones of their stars so far. But it’s certainly no guarantee just yet.
The mission has not received any funding and there is no indication that it will do so in the near future. And a lot of technology will still have to be developed before such a mission is possible.
But that’s exactly how missions like this always begin, and that’s what has the most potential impact. With luck, over the next few decades, we’ll get an image of a potentially habitable exoplanet as crisp as we’re likely to get in the medium future as well.
The team behind this research deserves praise for laying the groundwork for such an idea in the first place.
This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.