By Kay Whatley, Editor
In April 2016, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory release stated the following:
On the Road to Finding Other Earths
Released by Whitney Clavin, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Scientists are getting closer to finding worlds that resemble our own “blue marble” of a planet. NASA’s Kepler mission alone has confirmed more than 1,000 planets outside our solar system — a handful of which are a bit bigger than Earth and orbit in the habitable zones of their stars, where liquid water might exist. Some astronomers think the discovery of Earth’s true analogs may be around the corner. What are the next steps to search for life on these potentially habitable worlds?
Scientists and engineers are actively working on two technologies to help with this challenge: the starshade, a giant flower-shaped spacecraft; and coronagraphs, single instruments that fit inside telescopes. Both a starshade and a coronagraph block the light of a star, making it easier for telescopes to pick up the dim light that reflects off planets. This would enable astronomers to take pictures of Earth-like worlds — and then use other instruments called spectrometers to search the planets’ atmospheres for chemical clues about whether life might exist there.
A new JPL “Crazy Engineering” video visits both technologies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California youtu.be/ALGI0ex0-ac?list=PLTiv_XWHnOZp2Wmmd3gVSiKAVyXk9Rh14.
“Coronagraphs are like visors in your car — you use them to block the light of the sun so you can see the road,” said Nick Siegler, the program chief technologist for NASA’s Exoplanet Exploration Program Office at JPL. “Starshades, on the other hand, are separate spacecraft that fly in front of other telescopes, so they are more like driving behind a big truck in front of you to block the light of the sun.” Siegler is featured in the Crazy Engineering video.
The starshade would be a large structure about the size of a baseball diamond that deploys in space and flies in front of a space telescope. To view an animation of the starshade unfurling in space, and footage of a prototype at Northrop Grumman’s Astro Aerospace in Carpinteria, California, visit www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2014-089.
Coronagraphs, which use tiny masks to block the light of stars from within a telescope, are also currently in development at JPL, as part of NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, mission, led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. A feature story describing how these structures might help glean signs of life on other planets is online at www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2016-117.
What does NASA’s effort mean to you? Does it have implications for our Earth?
As they find other planets that they deem to be Earth-like, are they expecting to eventually fund “spaceships” to these other planets? The search for a new world was fraught with difficulties when it took place on Earth. Early explorers’ actions are still affecting life today. What are the implications of funding a visit to another planet? Humans seeking scientific truths might then want to explore or examine that planet or even colonize. What about other life that might already be “out there” on a planet they target for colonization?
But what about the moon? Since man visited the moon in the 20th century, little has been done to return. It is nearest to us, yet least investigated.
And what about the Planet Earth? Life on Earth is facing so many environmental issues — and social issues — that efforts are needed to improve living conditions here on this Big Blue Marble.
What do you think it will be like if science is focused on the skies, while Earth needs environmental solutions? With funding being used to create these new, deployable tools, goals and benefits for life on Earth need to be part of the equation.