The NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts is known for supporting outlandish ideas in the fields of astronomy and space exploration. Since its re-establishment in 2011, the Institute has supported a wide range of projects as part of its three-phase programme.
However, to date, only three projects have continued to receive Phase III funding. And one of those just released a white paper describing the task of getting a telescope that could effectively see the vital fingerprints on nearby exoplanets by using our sun’s gravitational lens.
This distinction comes in Phase III with funding of US$2 million, in this case going to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, whose scientist, Slava Turishev, was the principal investigator in the first two phases of the project.
He has collaborated with The Aerospace Corporation to prepare this latest white paper, which describes the mission concept in more detail and identifies technologies that already exist and what needs further development.
However, there are many amazing features of this mission design, one of which has been touched upon in detail centaur dreams.
Rather than launching a large vehicle that would take a long time to travel anywhere, the proposed mission would launch several small, cubed clusters and then self-assemble on a 25-year journey to the point of a solar gravitational lens (SGL).
This “point” is actually a straight line between any star around which there is an exoplanet and somewhere between 550-1000 AU on the other side of the Sun. That’s an enormous distance, far beyond the 156 Voyager 1 units that Voyager 1 has so far taken 44 years to traverse.
So how can a spacecraft reach three times the distance while taking nearly half the time? Simple – it will (almost) sink into the sun.
Using the gravitational thrust from the sun is a tried and true method. The fastest man-made object ever, the Parker Solar Probe, used such technology.
However, when boosting to 25 AU per year, the expected speed at which this task must travel is not easy. And it would be more difficult for a fleet of ships than just one.
The first problem would be materials – solar sails, the mission’s preferred method of propulsion, do not perform well when exposed to the intensity of the sun that would be required for a gravitational slingshot.
Additionally, the electronics on the system must be more radiation-resistant than current technology. However, both of these two known problems have potential solutions under active research.
Another seemingly obvious problem is how to coordinate the passage of multiple satellites through this kind of gut-damaging gravitational maneuver and still allow them to coordinate joining up to eventually form a fully functional spacecraft.
But according to the paper’s authors, there would be more than enough time in the 25-year journey to the observation point to actively rejoin the cubic satellites into a coherent whole.
What could result from this coherent whole is a better picture of an exoplanet that humanity would likely be missing from a full-on interstellar mission.
Which exoplanet would be the best candidate would be a hotly debated topic if the mission moves forward, since more than 50 exoplanets have so far been found in the habitable zones of their stars. But that’s definitely not a guarantee yet.
The mission has not received any funding or any indication that it will do so in the near future. Much technology remains to be developed before such a task becomes possible.
But that’s exactly how missions like this always begin, and this mission has more potential impact than most. With luck, at some point over the next few decades, we will receive as clear a picture of a potentially habitable exoplanet as we are likely to receive in the medium future.
The team behind this research deserves credit for laying the groundwork for such an idea in the first place.
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