Scientists have devised a radical plan to use the sun as a massive telescope, tapping into an effect known as gravitational lensing to view alien worlds in ultra-high resolution.
The plan, revealed by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during a recent workshop, could allow us to glimpse exoplanets in unprecedented detail, revealing their ‘surface features and signs of habitability.’
While most systems now rely on just a few pixels to view distant worlds, a device of this kind would essentially use the sun’s gravity as a magnifying glass to achieve 1000×1000 pixel imaging.
Scientists have devised a radical plan to use the sun as a massive telescope, tapping into an effect known as gravitational lensing to view alien worlds in ultra-high resolution. Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains that a massive object can act as a lens by bending light
GRAVITATIONAL LENSING, EXPLAINED
Gravitational lensing occurs when a massive galaxy or cluster of galaxies bends the light emitted from a more distant galaxy.
This forms a highly magnified, though much distorted image.
This is because massive objects bend the spacetime around them, making light travel in a different path.
It was first proposed by Einstein in his theory of General Relativity.
The researchers revealed their proposal at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop in Washington DC, which aims to identify goals that could potentially be implemented before 2050.
Currently, telescopes are limited by size and baseline distance.
But, the scientists say we could push our imaging capabilities much further by using the sun.
‘The natural high-ground for multi-pixel imaging of exoplanets resides along the line (region) called the Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL) Focus that takes advantage of the fact that the Sun’s large gravitational field focuses light from faint, distant sources into the SGL region,’ the team wrote.
The plan would deploy an optical telescope based on this effect, giving them the ability to directly image Earth-like exoplanets.
The plan would deploy an optical telescope based on the sun’s gravitational lensing, giving them the ability to directly image Earth-like exoplanets. A device of this kind would essentially use the sun’s gravity as a magnifying glass to achieve 1000×1000 pixel imaging
Currently, telescopes are limited by size and baseline distance. But, the scientists say we could push our imaging capabilities much further by using the sun
Einstein’s theory of general relativity explains that gravity induces refractive properties in space-time.
This means that a massive object, such as the sun, can act as a lens by bending light.
‘As a result, the gravitationally deflected rays of light passing from around of the lensing mass converge at a set of focal points,’ the scientists explain.
‘Of all the solar system bodies, only the Sun is massive enough that the focal length resides within the range of a realistic mission from Earth.’
Doing this would bring capabilities up to 1000×1000 pixel imaging and spectroscopy, for a much closer look at distant planets.
PLAN TO LAUNCH A MAGNETIC FIELD AROUND MARS
NASA scientists have proposed a radical idea to launch a magnetic field around Mars, with hopes it could protect the red planet from intense solar wind and allow humans to explore alongside rovers.
Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Division Director, revealed the idea at the Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop in Washington DC.
The proposal would create a dipole field –a pair of equal and oppositely charged magnets – between Mars and the sun, at a point known as Mars L1.
This ‘artificial magnetic field’ would put Mars inside a ‘magnetotail,’ protecting it from the harsh solar wind.
The model shows that a strong enough magnetic field could allow Mars to rebuild its atmosphere, soon reaching an ‘Earth comparable field’
Without the barrage of high-energy particles, Mars’ atmosphere would begin to rebuild itself over time.
In just a matter of years, the simulations show the planet could achieve an ‘Earth comparable field.’
Increasing the pressure would cause the equator to heat up, leading the polar cap to collapse, Green says.
This would release carbon dioxide, which would turn to gas and begin to fill the atmosphere – and, this would cause the atmosphere to heat up, melting the ice and allowing for the return of liquid water.
But, the plan would be faced with some challenges.
Such a telescope would only work at the solar system’s focal point – a point in interstellar space that’s nearly 14 times farther away than Pluto’s orbit, according to Popular Mechanics.
Even now, the Voyager 1 spacecraft – the furthest travelled craft – has only made it roughly a fifth of this distance in the last 50 years.
If the space agency were to implement an aggressive launch using modern propulsion technology to speed up the process, a new craft could reach Voyager in just a few years.
But, it would still take an additional 50 years to get near the focal point.