NASA has a lot of big ideas. That’s their business. Looking for exoplanets has become a focus in recent years. What planets might house life beyond ours… and which planets might we be able to inhabit? Well, NASA has been working on a plan to build a giant starshade to help find out.
The idea is that a space telescope would be launched into space with a companion craft that would fly about 25,000 miles in front of it. Yes. Miles. The spacecraft ahead of the telescope would be furnished with a large “sunflower-shaped” shade (inspired by origami) that would help the telescope detect planets that would normally be hidden behind the glare of starlight. It’s like when you put your hand in front of your face while you’re driving, so you can see the cars in front of you. But, bigger… and extremely complicated.
In order for this to work, the two crafts would have to be aligned within about 3 feet of each other. Yes. From 25,000 miles away. It boggles the mind, doesn’t it? Michael Bottom, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory put it this way: “If the starshade were scaled down to the size of a drink coaster, the telescope would be the size of a pencil eraser, and they’d be separated by about 60 miles [100 kilometers],” Bottom added. “Now imagine those two objects are free-floating in space. They’re both experiencing these little tugs and nudges from gravity and other forces, and over that distance we’re trying to keep them both precisely aligned to within about 2 millimeters.” – space.com.
Sure. No big deal. Amazingly, according to NASA, it is possible. A camera mounted to the telescope and dedicated to watching for “alignment failures” could keep the two crafts synced up.
Bottom added to his statement, “We can sense a change in the position of the starshade down to an inch, even over these huge distances.” That’s encouraging. NASA reps even said in their report, released earlier this year, that the project is possible at 46,000 miles. No one likes a show-off. Okay, yes. Yes we do.