Direct imaging of exoplanets - “seeing” the planet as a separate point of light near a star - is extremely difficult, and several decades ago, scientists used to say that it would be impossible to image Earth-like exoplanets. Today this seems possible, using some combination of adaptive optics technology, coronagraphs, or starshades. Adaptive lets telescopes on the ground compensate for the Earth’s atmosphere. Coronagraphs use ultraprecise masks inside telescopes to block the diffracted light from a bright star. Starshades combine a space telescope with a huge flower-shaped spacecraft that flies in formation to block the starlight before it even reaches the telescope.. So what are we waiting for? What are the technological difficulties that make the development of exoplanet-hunting space telescopes so challenging? The future NASA Wide-Field Infrared Survey telescope could test out some of these technologies by studying Jupiter-like planets, and the proposed Habitable Planets Explorer (HabEX) mission could fully integrate them in a search for earthlike planets around dozens of nearby stars.
We invited two experts, astronomers and engineers, to discuss the progress in developing this technology and its future :
- Jeremy Kasdin, Professor at USF and Princeton University, is the leader of the coronagraph science (the Adjutant Scientist) for NASA's WFIRST mission and has worked extensively on developing the technology for starshades.
- Bruce Macintosh, Professor at Stanford University, lead an exoplanet Science Investigation Team for the coronagraph instrument on the WFIRST mission and also has proposed mDOT, a microsatellite starshade demonstrator that would use a mini-starshade in low Earth orbit.
Both have been extensively involved in the development of coronagraph technology on Earth and for future space missions.
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