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posted by chromas on Monday May 25 2020, @03:21AM   Printer-friendly
from the pixila-centauri dept.

Phys.org reports on the bold plan to take pictures of an exoplanet so sharp that oceans, continents and even clouds would be discernible.

Right now, it's impossible. From our vantage point, exoplanets—planets orbiting other stars—look like fireflies next to spotlights. In the few images we've managed to take of them, the exoplanets are mere dots. Even as the next generation of space telescopes comes online, this won't change—you'd need a 90-kilometer-wide telescope to see surface features on a planet 100 light years away.

A group of researchers has an audacious plan to overcome these difficulties. It involves using solar sail spacecraft—possibly an entire fleet of them—to fly faster and farther away from Earth than any previous space probe, turn around, and use our distant Sun's gravity as a giant magnifying glass. If it works, we'll capture an image of an exoplanet so sharp that we can see features just 10 kilometers across.

Recently awarded a $2 million grant by NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, and spearheaded by JPL physicist Slava Turyshev, the project,

called the Solar Gravity Lens, or SGL, sounds like something straight out of science fiction. NASA and a collection of universities, aerospace companies and other organizations are involved, as well as Planetary Society co-founder Lou Friedman, the original solar sailing guru.

According to Turyshev

The needed technologies do already exist, but the challenge is how to make use of that technology, how to accelerate their development, and then how to best put them to use. I think we are at the beginning of an exciting period in the space industry, where getting to SGL would be practical, and scientifically exciting."

I wonder if it will come with an EF mount.

Previous Coverage
25 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Selected for 2018
Sun Could be Used as a Gravitational Lens by a Spacecraft 550 AU Away

Related
"Terrascope": Earth's Atmosphere Could be Used as a Refraction Lens for a Space Telescope


Original Submission

Related Stories

Sun Could be Used as a Gravitational Lens by a Spacecraft 550 AU Away 28 comments

The Sun could be used as a gravitational lens to magnify normally hard-to-image targets such as exoplanets. The catch? The equipment needs to be 550 AU away from the Sun:

Now Leon Alkalai from the Jet Propulsion Lab and his co-authors have picked up an earlier suggestion from Italian physicist Claudio Maccone to use our Sun, rather than a distant star, to create what might be the ultimate telescope based on the microlensing principle. Alkalai's team has investigated the viability of the method in detail as a breakthrough mission concept. They also presented their findings at NASA's recent Planetary Science Vision 2050 workshop in Washington, D.C.

To build such a "telescope," detecting instruments would be placed at a point in space where the Sun's gravity focuses lensed light from distant stars. Not only is the idea viable, according to the Alkalai team, it would produce images that separate the distant star from its exoplanet, a critical observation that is the goal of future space telescopes equipped with Starshades. And using the Sun as a lens would result in much greater magnification. Instead of a single pixel or two, astronomers would get images of 1,000 x 1,000 pixels from exoplanets 30 parsecs, or about 100 light years, away. That translates to a resolution of about 10 kilometers on the planet's surface, better than what the Hubble Space Telescope can see on Mars, which would allow us to make out continents and other surface features.

[...] There is a downside, however. The telescope's focal plane instruments would have to be at least 550 AU from the Sun (1 AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance from the Sun to Earth), which is well into interstellar space. The only spacecraft that has reached interstellar space so far is Voyager 1, which covered approximately 137 AUs in 39 years. So we would need a spacecraft that is at least 10 times faster, but Alkalai and his colleagues say this is within the reach of current technology.

Also at Engadget, MIT, and The New Yorker.

Mission to the Gravitational Focus of the Sun: A Critical Analysis


Original Submission

25 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Selected for 2018 11 comments

The NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program is funding another round of studies of space technology concepts, including shapeshifting robots that can adapt to multiple terrains, a small rover that can carry the bulky life equipment that an astronaut would normally carry on their back, a combined particle and laser beam for accelerating small payloads, space habitats constructed using fungal mycelium, a modular self-assembling space telescope with a large aperture, and a radioisotope positron propulsion system.

Some of the Phase 2 concepts that were selected for further study include a space telescope with a 1 kilometer aperture, a Triton "hopper", a harvester that can manufacture propellant from ice in order to launch a sample return, and a Mach Effect thruster.

Several of the proposals mention the goal of getting a space telescope to at least 548.7 AU away from the Sun to perform astronomy using the Sun as a gravitational lens. For example, the Breakthrough Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions could get a payload out to 550 AU in 15 years, although it would require a multi-hundred-megawatt phased-array laser.

Projects in Phase 1:

Shapeshifters from Science Fiction to Science Fact: Globetrotting from Titan's Rugged Cliffs to its Deep Seafloors
Aliakbar Aghamohammadi, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Pasadena, California

Biobot: Innovative Offloading of Astronauts for More Effective Exploration
David Akin, University of Maryland, College Park

Lofted Environmental and Atmospheric Venus Sensors (LEAVES)
Jeffrey Balcerski, Ohio Aerospace Institute, Cleveland

Meteoroid Impact Detection for Exploration of Asteroids (MIDEA)
Sigrid Close, Stanford University, California

On-Orbit, Collision-Free Mapping of Small Orbital Debris
Christine Hartzell, University of Maryland, College Park

Marsbee – Swarm of Flapping Wing Flyers for Enhanced Mars Exploration
Chang-kwon Kang, University of Alabama, Huntsville

Rotary Motion Extended Array Synthesis (R-MXAS)
John Kendra, Leidos, Inc., Reston, Virginia

PROCSIMA: Diffractionless Beamed Propulsion for Breakthrough Interstellar Missions
Chris Limbach, Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, College Station

SPARROW: Steam Propelled Autonomous Retrieval Robot for Ocean Worlds
Gareth Meirion-Griffith, JPL

BALLET: Balloon Locomotion for Extreme Terrain
Hari Nayar, JPL

Myco-Architecture off Planet: Growing Surface Structures at Destination
Lynn Rothscild, NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California

Modular Active Self-Assembling Space Telescope Swarms
Dmitry Savransky, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York

Astrophysics and Technical Study of a Solar Neutrino Spacecraft
Nickolas Solomey, Wichita State University, Kansas

Advanced Diffractive MetaFilm Sailcraft
Grover Swartzlander, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York

Spectrally-Resolved Synthetic Imaging Interferometer
Jordan Wachs, Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation, Boulder, Colorado

Radioisotope Positron Propulsion
Ryan Weed, Positron Dynamics, Livermore, California

Phase 2 projects that were previously in Phase 1:

Pulsed Fission-Fusion (PuFF) Propulsion Concept
Robert Adams, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Alabama

A Breakthrough Propulsion Architecture for Interstellar Precursor Missions
John Brophy, JPL

Kilometer Space Telescope (KST)
Devon Crowe, Raytheon, El Segundo, California

Dismantling Rubble Pile Asteroids with AoES (Area-of-Effect Soft-bots)
Jay McMahon, University of Colorado, Boulder

Triton Hopper: Exploring Neptune's Captured Kuiper Belt Object
Steven Oleson, NASA's Glenn Research Center, Cleveland

Spacecraft Scale Magnetospheric Protection from Galactic Cosmic Radiation
John Slough, MSNW, LLC, Redmond, Washington

Direct Multipixel Imaging and Spectroscopy of an Exoplanet with a Solar Gravity Lens Mission
Slava Turyshev, JPL

NIMPH: Nano Icy Moons Propellant Harvester
Michael VanWoerkom, ExoTerra Resource, Littleton, Colorado

Mach Effect for in space propulsion: Interstellar mission
James Woodward, Space Studies Institute, Inc., Mojave, California


Original Submission

"Terrascope": Earth's Atmosphere Could be Used as a Refraction Lens for a Space Telescope 4 comments

Space telescope would turn Earth into a giant magnifying lens

When it is finished sometime next decade, Europe's Extremely Large Telescope will be the largest in the world, with a mirror nearly 40 meters across. But one astronomer has proposed an even more powerful space telescope—one with the equivalent of a 150-meter mirror—that would use Earth's atmosphere itself as a natural lens to gather and focus light. Astronomer David Kipping of Columbia University has worked out that a 1-meter space telescope, positioned beyond the moon, could use the focusing power of the ring of atmosphere seen around the edge of the planet to amplify the brightness of dim objects by tens of thousands of times.

The atmosphere is too variable for a Terrascope, as Kipping calls it, to produce beautiful images to rival those from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it could discover much fainter objects than is now possible, including small exoplanets or Earth-threatening asteroids. Kipping acknowledges that more work is needed to prove the idea, but the necessary technology already exists. "None of this is reinventing the wheel, it just needs to be pushed a bit harder," he says.

Astronomers who read the paper Kipping posted last week on arXiv were both delighted and cautious. Matt Kenworthy, of Leiden University in the Netherlands, says he was "blown away by how much work and thought he had put into it" but wants more evidence that it will work. "I'd want to sit down and do a more realistic model," he says. Bruce Macintosh of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, adds: "It's an interesting thought experiment, but there are a lot of details to think through."

A telescope could be put on the surface of the Moon facing the Earth (thus making both sides of the Moon attractive places to put telescopes), or at another location such as the L1 Lagrange point.

Also at Scientific American.

The "Terrascope": On the Possibility of Using the Earth as an Atmospheric Lens (arXiv:1908.00490)

Related: Sun Could be Used as a Gravitational Lens by a Spacecraft 550 AU Away
Halo Drive


Original Submission

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  • (Score: 4, Interesting) by takyon on Monday May 25 2020, @03:25AM (4 children)

    by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {soylentnews.org}> on Monday May 25 2020, @03:25AM (#998722) Journal

    You need to precisely send a functioning spacecraft to at least 550 AU (that is the minimum, could be more) in order to get imagery of a single target. There's bound to be many boring and barren exoplanets out there, so choose wisely.

    It is much easier to put telescopes in Earth orbit, Earth-Moon, L2, etc. 90-kilometer aperture will be a tough one, but one kilometer could be doable in the short term with modular assembly or giant bubbles. Swarms of telescopes using optical interferometry is a possibility. You can sacrifice light collecting area for resolution, but still make each telescope larger than Hubble/JWST/etc.

    https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/2018_Phase_I_Phase_II/Kilometer_Space_Telescope/ [nasa.gov]
    https://www.nextbigfuture.com/2018/09/giant-one-kilometer-space-bubble-telescopes.html [nextbigfuture.com]
    https://www.universetoday.com/139566/instead-of-building-single-monster-scopes-like-james-webb-what-about-swarms-of-space-telescopes-working-together/ [universetoday.com]

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    • (Score: 2) by Grishnakh on Monday May 25 2020, @04:19AM (1 child)

      by Grishnakh (2831) on Monday May 25 2020, @04:19AM (#998728)

      Yeah, exactly. I just read this summary and thought, "this dumb idea again?". The idea is idiotic because of sheer infeasibility. As you said, you'd have to send these spacecraft very, very far for gravitational lensing to work. So it'd take forever to get these things out there in the first place (as another comment here notes, our very farthest probes have only gone about 150AU in 40 years, and according to you these would have to go at least 550AU). Do we really have centuries to wait to get a swarm of small satellites into position to image a single exoplanet somewhere? And of course, you wouldn't be able to use them for any other exoplanets: it would take forever to move them to another useful position to image a different planet (think about the surface area of a sphere, and the distance on the surface of a sphere to another point, compared to the distance from the center). Where would they even get the fuel for this? (There's no useful solar power that far from any star.)

      How on earth did these "researchers" decide this plan makes any sense at all, and worse, why did the boneheads at NASA waste $2M on this idiocy? The whole thing sounds like a big scam, but you'd think the scientists at NASA would be too smart to fall for this.

      • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Monday May 25 2020, @04:57AM

        by c0lo (156) Subscriber Badge on Monday May 25 2020, @04:57AM (#998737) Journal

        How on earth did these "researchers" decide this plan makes any sense at all

        The plan doesn't need to make sense for the researchers, just for those who approve the budget.

        why did the boneheads at NASA waste $2M on this idiocy?

        Need to keep Slava Turyshev on payroll until the flyby anomaly [wikipedia.org] gets explained.
        And you can't get the budget approved for that, so that's a fallback.

        --
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    • (Score: 4, Funny) by c0lo on Monday May 25 2020, @04:46AM

      by c0lo (156) Subscriber Badge on Monday May 25 2020, @04:46AM (#998735) Journal

      May worth the effort of they make it with an Ethanol-Fueled mount. Will give a purpose to EF's life.

      --
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoFiw2jMy-0 https://soylentnews.org/~MichaelDavidCrawford
    • (Score: 2, Informative) by RandomFactor on Monday May 25 2020, @05:30AM

      by RandomFactor (3682) Subscriber Badge on Monday May 25 2020, @05:30AM (#998744) Journal

      You need to precisely send a functioning spacecraft

      Sounds more like a swarm of spacecraft.

      Worse, once you get these things up to speed they are going to be quite difficult to stop.

      Kipping's Terrascope does sound more plausible in our lifetime.

      --
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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @04:09AM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @04:09AM (#998727)
  • (Score: 2) by bradley13 on Monday May 25 2020, @05:01AM (3 children)

    by bradley13 (3053) on Monday May 25 2020, @05:01AM (#998739) Homepage Journal

    There was once a concept to place telescopes along the Earth's orbit. I suppose at the Lagrange points. That would give an effective size of millions of kilometers.

    Such a telescope would be able to look at many targets - anything not on the ecliptic. Whereas the lightsail idea is a one-shot idea.

    --
    Everyone is somebody else's weirdo.
    • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Monday May 25 2020, @07:56AM

      by c0lo (156) Subscriber Badge on Monday May 25 2020, @07:56AM (#998779) Journal

      Whereas the lightsail idea is a one-shot idea.

      That's the idea; want another shot, put another $20M nickel in.

      --
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    • (Score: 1) by RandomFactor on Monday May 25 2020, @03:54PM (1 child)

      by RandomFactor (3682) Subscriber Badge on Monday May 25 2020, @03:54PM (#998844) Journal

      The Terrascope linked at the bottom mentions use of the Moon and/or L1 and is probably what you are thinking of.

      --
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      • (Score: 3, Interesting) by takyon on Monday May 25 2020, @04:00PM

        by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {soylentnews.org}> on Monday May 25 2020, @04:00PM (#998847) Journal

        brad is definitely talking about interferometry. Easy to do with radio, but optical in space will be a challenge. One that is being worked on, however.

        Optical interferometry in space could benefit from not having to deal with tremors, vehicles, and other Earthly interference.

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  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @05:34AM (3 children)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @05:34AM (#998748)

    There won't be an image even like that in my lifetime, or proof of life outside earth. The image of the blackhole was nice and all, but it's more of scientific proof than anything too interesting to a layman.

    • (Score: 2) by takyon on Monday May 25 2020, @10:33AM (2 children)

      by takyon (881) <{takyon} {at} {soylentnews.org}> on Monday May 25 2020, @10:33AM (#998804) Journal

      Opportunistic gravitational lensing of distant objects could accidentally image an exoplanet.

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      [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 [soylentnews.org]
      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @12:32PM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @12:32PM (#998816)

        Right, put the solar sail fleet on a slightly spiraling path away from the Sun. Over time they look at a line through the ecliptic. Not too much of a spiral, that would ruin any one "exposure".

        What's the chance of using a different nearby star for the lens, instead of good 'ol Sol -- maybe that can be done from closer to Earth? To avoid solar noise, put the antennas in orbits that are (sometimes) in the solar shadow cast by planets.

  • (Score: -1, Spam) by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @09:10PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25 2020, @09:10PM (#998953)

    Are you enjoying COVID-19, Boomers? I hope you are, because your political response to the pandemic has completely destroyed the economy. Did we really need a Great Recession in 2008 caused by you, and a Great Lockdown in 2020 caused by you? Are you proud of yourselves for creating an economic depression even worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s? Are you proud of yourselves, Boomers? Your legacy will be economic ruin for all. You don't care as long as you Boomers continue to receive your pensions. You Boomers don't have jobs. You Boomers don't create jobs. You Boomers don't do anything for anyone ever. You Boomers are utterly worthless parasites. You don't care about anybody except yourselves. Everybody except you is forced at gunpoint to wear a facemask while you Boomers sit in your giant mansions laughing and waiting to die when you will be buried with your fortunes so nobody will ever touch your precious money.

    Boomers did COVID-19.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 26 2020, @05:25PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 26 2020, @05:25PM (#999290)

    "sounds like something out of science fiction"

    I really really am tired of hearing that in these kind of stories. We have been at the point for decades where we can do anything that is in science fiction stores that doesn't break the laws of physics.

    And in this case, I really don't know what it is in particular that sounds like it is something out of science fiction. We've been utilizing gravitational lensing for as long as we recognized what it was. All this does is allow you to have better control of your observations.

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