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NASA unveils ambitious new plan to detect signs of life on distant planets

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NASA’s Advanced Concepts Institute is known for supporting outlandish ideas in the fields of astronomy and space exploration. Since its re-establishment in 2011, the institute has supported a wide range of projects through its three-phase program.

However, only three projects have received Phase III funding so far. And one of them just released a white paper describing a mission to build a telescope that could effectively see biosignatures on nearby exoplanets using our own sun’s gravitational lens.

This Phase III award is tied to US$2 million in funding, which in this case went to JPL, whose scientist Slava Turyshev was the principal investigator for the first two phases of the project.

He teamed up with Aerospace Corporation for this latest white paper, which details the mission concept and identifies which technologies already exist and which require further development.

However, there are several striking design features of this mission, one of which is detailed in Centauri Dreams.

Instead of launching a large ship that would take a long time to travel anywhere, the proposed mission will launch several small cubic satellites and then self-assemble them on a 25-year journey to the solar gravitational lens point (SGL).

This “point” is actually a straight line between the star the exoplanet is around and somewhere between 550-1000 AU. on the other side of the sun. This is a huge distance, much more than the measly 156 AU that Voyager 1 managed to cover in 44 years.

So how could a spacecraft cover three times the distance in almost half the time? It’s simple – it will dive (almost) into the Sun.

Using the gravitational impulse from the Sun is a tried and true method. The fastest human object ever created, the Parker Solar Probe, used just such a technique.

However, when increased to 25 a.u. per year, the expected speed at which this mission will have to travel is not easy. And that would be even more of a challenge for a fleet of ships than for one.

The first issue has to do with the material: solar sails, which are the mission’s preferred method of propulsion, don’t perform as well when exposed to the solar energy required for a gravity slingshot.

In addition, the electronics of the system must be much more resistant to radiation than existing technologies. However, both of these known problems have potential solutions that are under active investigation.

Another seemingly obvious problem is how to coordinate the passage of multiple satellites through such an agonizing gravity maneuver and still allow them to coordinate the connection to effectively form a fully functional spacecraft in the end.

But according to the authors of the article, in the 25-year journey to the observation point, there will be more than enough time to actively reunite individual cubesats into a single whole.

The result of this cohesive whole could be a better image of an exoplanet that humanity is likely to fall short of a full-fledged interstellar mission.

Which exoplanet would be the best candidate will be the subject of heated debate if the mission moves forward, as more than 50 stars have been found in habitable zones to date. But that’s certainly no guarantee.

The Mission has received no funding and no indication that it will receive any in the near future. And there is still a lot of technology to be developed before such a mission becomes possible.

But that’s how missions like this always start, and this one has more potential impact than most. With any luck, at some point in the next few decades, we will get the same clear image of a potentially habitable exoplanet that we are likely to get even in the medium term.

The team behind this study deserves credit for laying the groundwork for such an idea in the first place.

This article was originally published by Universe Today. Read the original article.

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