I always keep an eye on the Phase I and Phase II studies in the pipeline at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The goal is to support ideas in their early stages, with the 2022 awards going out to 17 different researchers to the tune of a combined $5.1 million. Of these, 12 are Phase I studies, which deliver $175,000 for a nine-month period, while the five Phase II awards go to $600,000 over two years. We looked at one of the Phase I studies, Jason Benkoski’s solar-thermal engine and shield concept, in the last post. Today we go hunting exoplanets with a starshade.
This particular iteration of the starshade concept is called Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE), as proposed by John Mather (NASA GSFC). Here the idea is to leverage the resources of the huge ground-based telescopes that should define the next generation of such instruments – the Giant Magellan Telescope, the Extremely Large Telescope, etc. – by using a starshade to block the glare of the host star, thus uncovering images of exoplanets. Remember that at visible wavelengths, our Sun is 10 billion times brighter than the Earth. The telescope/starshade collaboration would produce what Mather believes will be the most powerful planet finder yet designed.
Image: Three views of a starshade. Credit: NASA / Exoplanet Exploration Program.
Removing the overwhelming light of a star can be done in more than one way, and we’ve seen that an internal coronagraph will be used, for example, with the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. It’s what NASA describes as “a system of masks, prisms, detectors and even self-flexing mirrors” that is being built at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for the mission.
In conjunction with a space telescope, a starshade operates as a separate spacecraft, a large, flat shade positioned tens of thousands of kilometers away. Starshades have heretofore been studied in this configuration, so the innovation in Mather’s idea is to align the starshade with instruments on the ground. His team believes that we could detect oxygen and water on an Earth-class planet using a 1-hour spectrum out to a distance of 7 parsecs (roughly 23 light years. In an ASTRO2020 white paper, Mather described a system like this using a different orbit for each target star, with the orbit being a highly eccentric ellipse. Thrust is obviously a key component for adjusting the starshade’s position for operations.
From the white paper:
An orbiting starshade would enable ground-based telescopes to observe reflected light from Earth-like exoplanets around sun-like stars. With visible-band adaptive optics, angular resolution of a few milliarcseconds, and collecting areas far larger than anything currently feasible for space telescopes, this combination has the potential to open new areas of exoplanet science. An exo-Earth at 5 pc would be 50 resolution elements away from its star, making detection unambiguous, even in the presence of very bright exo-zodiacal clouds. Earth-like oxygen and water bands near 700 nm could be recognized despite terrestrial interference…
And what a positioning challenge this is in order to maximize angular resolution, sensitivity and contrast, with the starshade matching position and velocity with the telescope from an orbit with apogee greater than ~ 185,000 km, thus casting a shadow of the star, while leaving the light of its planets to reach the instrument below. In addition to the active propulsion to maintain the alignment, the concept relies on adaptive optics that will in any case be used in these ground instruments to cope with atmospheric distortion. Thus low-resolution spectroscopy becomes capable of analyzing light that is actually reflected from Earth-like planets.
Mather’s team wants to cut the 100-meter starshade mass by a factor of 10 to support about 400 kg of thin membranes making up the shade. Thus the concept of an ultra-lightweight design that would be assembled – or perhaps built entirely – in space. It’s worthwhile to remember that the starshade concept in orbit is a new entry in a field that has seen study at NASA GSFC as well as JPL’s Team X, with suitability considered for various missions including HabEx, WFIRST, JWST, New Worlds Explorer, UMBRAS and THEIA. The Mather plan is to create a larger, more maneuverable starshade, as it will indeed have to be to make possible the alignments with ground observatories contemplated in the study.
It’s an exciting prospect, but as Mather’s NIAC synopsis notes, the starshade is not one we could build today. From the synopsis:
The HOEE depends on two major innovations: a ground-space hybrid observatory, and an extremely large telescope on the ground. The tall pole requiring design and demonstration is the mechanical concept of the starshade itself. It must satisfy conflicting requirements for size and mass, shape accuracy and stability, and rigidity during or after thruster firing. Low mass is essential for observing many different target stars. If it can be assembled or constructed after launch, it need not be built to survive launch. We believe all requirements can be met, given sufficient effort. The HOEE is the most powerful exoplanet observatory yet proposed.
Image: Graphic depiction of Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE). Credit: John Mather.
Centauri Dreams readers will know that Ashley Baldwin has covered starshade development extensively in these pages. His WFIRST: The Starshade Option is probably the best place to start for those who want to delve further into the matter, although the archives contain further materials. Also see my Progress on Starshade Alignment, Stability.
For more, see Peretz et al., “Exoplanet imaging performance envelopes for starshade-based missions,” Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems 7(2), 021215 (2021). Abstract. And for an overview: Arenberg et al., “Special Section on Starshades: Overview and a Dialogue,” Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems 7(2), 021201 (2021). Abstract.