NASA | JPL-Caltech | Exoplanet Exploration Program | 2019 Jun 11
Anyone who's ever seen aircraft engaged in formation flying can appreciate the feat of staying highly synchronized while airborne. In work sponsored by NASA's Exoplanet Exploration Program (ExEP), engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are taking formation flying to a new extreme.This artist's concept of a starshade shows how the technology can block starlight and
reveal the presence of planets. The video also shows the unfurling of a starshade
model built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in an Astro Aerospace/Northrop
Grumman facility in Santa Barbara in 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Their work marks an important milestone within a larger program to test the feasibility of a technology called a starshade. 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.
A future starshade mission would involve two spacecraft. One would be a space telescope on the hunt for planets orbiting stars outside of our solar system. The other spacecraft would fly some 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) in front of it, carrying a large, flat shade. The shade would unfurl like a blooming flower - complete with "petals" - and block the light from a star, allowing the telescope to get a clearer glimpse of any orbiting planets. But it would work only if the two spacecraft were to stay, despite the great distance between them, aligned to within 3 feet (1 meter) of each other. Any more, and starlight would leak around the starshade into the telescope's view and overwhelm faint exoplanets.