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NASA Telescope to Reveal “Surface Features” and Vegetation on Alien Exoplanets

Have you ever wondered about what the exoplanets outside our solar system look like? We have seen numerous artist depictions, but assume seeing the actual planet, its variety of colors, atmosphere, continental formation, and even its vegetation.

NASA reported this week that they are supporting research for just such an endeavor—a conceptual telescope called a solar gravitational lens (SGL)—that would grant us to discover distant alien worlds with staggering resolution.

The project’s aim, according to the space agency’s description, is to “directly image a habitable Earth-like exoplanet within our stellar neighborhood” with a resolution of around 25 km, which is “enough to see surface features and signs of habitability.

The new statement of a solar gravitational lens (SGL) comes after Phase I and II funding by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) project.

Slava Turyshev, a physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who has put together a long study on such technology, explains how an SGL works:

In the strong interference region of the SGL, this light is greatly amplified, forming the Einstein ring around the Sun, representing a distorted image of the extended source.

This isn’t the only mega-scale astronomical attempt by NASA that could capture unbelievable new data on alien worlds. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), when it launches in 2021 or in 2022, will be more than capable of seeing planets (in high-contrast, mid-infrared variety) that are ten million to 100 million times fainter than we can currently see. JWST will also investigate the atmospheres of these planets and look for signs of oxygen and other “techno-signatures” of industrial gases.

The new phases of the SGL project provided three serious innovations.

According to NASA, they have: “1) proven the feasibility of high-resolution, multipixel imaging of a habitable exoplanet; (2) devised a swarm architecture for smallsats to explore the interstellar medium; (3) designed the low-cost solar array propulsion to achieve the exit velocity from the solar system needed for the mission.”

The remaining technological problem is working out a way to ferry a “meter-class telescope with a solar coronagraph” to a great distance from the Sun. Slava Turyshev, physicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), has proposed the solution may be placing a “swarm architecture for smallsats” powered by solar sails that can capture the image of “multiple planets/moons of an exosolar system” simultaneously.

While it could take many years until we begin to collect data and images from these programs, it’s thrilling to know that in our lifetime we will possibly see the “surface features” of alien exoplanets outside of our solar system and be able to perceive their vegetation patterns.

No one knows—we may even discover atmospheric traces or “signs of habitability” that tell us who lives there.

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