Photographers use tools called flags to block and control light. NASA has a new technology called a starshade that is essentially a gigantic flag in space for doing photo shoots with space telescopes.
Although starshades have never flown in space, they hold the potential to enable groundbreaking observations of planets beyond our solar system , including pictures of planets as small as earth, "NASA writes.
A starshade mission would involve two spacecraft working together with extreme precision. One would be a space telescope (the camera) that can hunt for and photograph planets that orbit stars outside of our solar system. The other spacecraft would be a large, flat shade called a starshade (the flag) flowing about 25,000 miles (40,000km) away between the telescope and the star system being photographed.
After getting in position, the starshade (which would be tens of feet in diameter would be unfurl its "petals" like a blooming flower and block direct light from the star, allowing the telescope to see and photograph the orbiting planets more clearly.
But because it's located 25,000 miles away, the "Flag" would have to stay extremely aligned for its purpose. If it's misaligned by over 3 feet (1
about for the starshade technology are kind of hard to imagine, ”says JPL engineer Michael Bottom. "If the stars 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].
"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 about that distance are trying to keep them both aligned to within about 2 millimeters. ”Here's a 2-minute NASA video illustrating how to starshade photo shoot would work:
Getting this type of starshade photo shoot to work could open the floodgates for astronomers to directly photographed exoplanets, which today are mostly observed indirectly except in rare cases. The first starshade mission could potentially be in the late 2020s if planning continues to go well.
"Blocking out starlight is key to performing more directly imaging and, eventually, to carrying out in-depth studies of planetary atmospheres or finding hints about the surface features of rocky worlds, "NASA says. "Such studies have the potential to reveal signs of life beyond Earth for the first time."