NASA starts designing futuristic space telescope to hunt for alien Earths

Jan 13, 2023
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Does anyone else see an optical illusion (I think?) on the alien hunting telescope? Look at the image, look away for a moment, and then look back at it. Let me know if you detect anything unusual about the telescope
"First, despite the name and goal, NASA is considering the project an astrophysics mission, Clampin said. To meet its mission of searching for life, the Habitable Worlds Observatory will need to be a super-stable telescope equipped with a powerful coronograph, an instrument that allows scientists to study faint objects like rocky planets near bright objects like stars. But that's a powerful combination for astrophysicists as well."

This should be challenging to accomplish and something if done. Consider that 1 arcsecond resolution at 100 pc = 100 au diameter. A habitable earth size or earth like planet will lie much closer to the host star than 100 au separation.
I wonder why the sun shield is so much bigger than Webb's relative to the size of the mirror. Is that to give it a wider available field of view (can slew at larger angles)?

Also, while this is exciting that they're working on the next generation of space telescopes, I'd really like to know if progress is being made on a mission to get (a) telescope(s) out to the solar gravitational focus. That kind of mission would be designed to see only one star system, but it sounds like the resolution possible would be truly insane. A recent PBS Spacetime video covered this and said it might be possible to get something on the order of 25 km per pixel images of an exoplanet's surface. As a point of reference, this is better resolution than the Earth as seen in the famous "Earthrise" image.
The Sun's gravitational focus is at a minimum of 550 AU, this light is bent inside the corona and would be very hazy, much farther is better.

After 45 years, Voyager I is only 150 AU away. No one is interested in a project that would take 135 years to see results. This must wait for more advanced propulsion technologies which we don't have. We will probably have to master fusion first.
This must wait for more advanced propulsion technologies which we don't have. We will probably have to master fusion first.

The idea discussed in the PBS Spacetime video would utilize a small spacecraft (or multiple spacecraft) propelled by a solar sail that would 'tack' in close to the sun and then "let 'er rip" once at about 1/4 the distance from the sun as Mercury. The top speed would be much faster than the Voyager probes. They discussed something on the order of 25 years to get out to the focus. I don't know much about the maturity of the technologies that would go into this, but the 135-year travel time is much longer than what the proposed concept is suggesting.
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I found this article which is even more pessimistic than I thought. The distance would have to be around 2,000 AU, not 450. Also once it got there, it would have to follow a 150,000 km ellipse in order to stay within the image as the purported planet orbited its star. Such a propulsion system would be very large and heavy, not amenable to a solar sail.
I am sure they are looking at it, but with such high technological hurdles there probably is not going to be much in the way of resources put against it.
A Space Mission to the Gravitational Focus of the Sun | MIT Technology Review
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Interesting. Sounds like this may not be possible for generations to come, if at all. The promise of what can be achieved is so tantalizing, though, and some of these problems do seem like they are surmountable with some clever tricks (provided the mission has ample funding for a swarm of spacecraft). Increasing pointing accuracy by a factor of 100 does seem like quite the challenge, as well as knowing the position of the planet to high enough accuracy, and of course getting out to 2,000 AU on a reasonable timescale.
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