NASA’s new project looks beyond the solar system to search for Earth-like planets

In its quest to explore new planets, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is working on a hybrid observatory concept that would combine a ground-based telescope with a space starshade. According to this new concept, glare from stars will be blocked when observing planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets, from the ground. To design such a telescope, the American space agency invites people to submit their most advanced ideas.

The Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge asks participants to develop a lightweight starshade structure that could be used as part of the HOEE (Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets) concept. The HOEE concept plans to convert Earth’s largest telescopes into the most powerful planet finders ever made, and the public has the opportunity to be part of this groundbreaking endeavor.

In a statement, NASA said the telescope’s ideal design would allow for compact packaging and successful deployment once in Earth orbit. Some of the other critical targets the telescope must hit have the lowest possible mass so that chemical thrusters can keep it aligned during observations and propulsion systems can change its orbit to observe different targets, while using the least amount of possible fuel.

Dr. John Mather, senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement: “The hybrid observatory could help us answer some of the most pressing questions about extraterrestrial life.”

Mather added, “Observing many systems would help answer the question of why configurations like ours are rare and why none are quite like ours.”

What makes this project even more interesting is that the public can also be part of this project and present their ideas.

Most of the exoplanets discovered so far have been discovered by indirect methods. Scientists either measure the dimming of a star passing in front of a planet, called the transit method, or monitor a star’s spectrum for telltale signs of a planet tugging at its star and slightly Dopplering its light shift.

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Arline J. Mercier