Dear aliens, don’t you know that you have our hearts? We should never be worlds apart! So you’ll excuse us for building a giant space umbrella to try and shake you out of hiding, hopefully. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Cal Tech has already begun work on Starshade, a massive screen that will be positioned in space and take synchronized flight with a space telescope. The idea fueling Starshade is to use this big kahuna to block the light from bright stars to create a high-contrast shadow. This will hopefully give scientists and researchers a better view of exoplanets that could potentially host life forms.
What’s an exoplanet you ask? Well, they’re planets that have been nicknamed “Goldilocks planets” because they are rocky planets like Earth that are situated at just the right distance from a star to make the climate hospitable for living creatures without being too hot or too cold. For several decades now, astronomers have discovered more than 2,000 exoplanets orbiting stars. Before they can determine for certain whether or not these planets can sustain and host life, researchers need to get a good, clear look at them. This proves problematic because the faint light from the stars that exoplanets typically orbit is blurred and obscured by much brighter stars orbiting them.
So while scientists and astronomers have identified a plethora of exoplanets that could lead to the discovery of life outside of Earth, they haven’t been able to get a good enough look through their high-powered telescopes because the light from other stars is blinding them. These annoying glares have seriously dampened the study of these exoplanets, with scientists having to detect the gravitational pull on a star or light fluctuation from a star to be indicative signs of the existence of exoplanets. These methods are tedious, especially when researchers could just get a first-hand look from a telescope.
Starshade is being positioned as the solution to this problem. The hope is that Starshade can essentially act like a sun visor or beach umbrella, blocking out the light from these brighter stars to focus in on a clear view of these exoplanets. This way, only the light of an exoplanet would enter the telescope. Aesthetically, the Starshade will look like a giant golden flower, with metallic “petals” blocking and reflecting starlight away from the telescope to hone in on light from a potential exoplanet. The flower design was settled upon after tests conducted by aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman yielded the best results. Just how big the Starshade needs to be is still up in the air, but one proposal calls for it to be the size of a football field.
There are still some technical engineering issues hindering the Starshade’s development. The biggest is figuring out how to fly the contraption in a close enough formation with a telescope that’s thousands of miles away. Jeremy Kasdin, a Princeton University aerospace engineer who is helping develop Starshade, noted in a TED talk that if this problem is resolved, Starshade could be deployed as soon as 2024.
While Starshade won’t enable telescopes to capture high-res photos of exoplanets, it will assist in helping scientists analyze their atmospheres to see if they’re conducive to host life, or detecting chemicals within the atmosphere of an exoplanet that might be pollution created by a civilized species. But honestly, if the science behind the Starshade is still a little wonky and confusing to you, Rihanna pretty much nails it in her hit song “Umbrella.” After all, in the dark, you can’t see shining stars. That’s Starshade boiled down to its essence.