In the development of space-based telescopes, there has long been a limiting factor – launch fairings. These pods essentially limit the overall size of mirrors we can bring into space, limiting the sensitivity of many of these instruments. Despite these limitations, some of the most successful telescopes of all time have been space-based. But despite all the advantages of space, they have so far failed to find an exoplanet in the habitable zone of a sun-like star.
Enter a new project called Diffractive Interfero Coronagraph Exoplanet Resolver (DICER) recently funded by NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC).
Although some planets have already been found in their star’s habitable zones, none have been found near G/K class stars like our Sun. Calculations suggest that a telescope must have a 20-meter mirror to effectively see exoplanets in the habitable zone around Earth-like stars. So far, mankind has not developed a launch vehicle capable of launching such a monstrous mirror into space.
Could DICER do the job?
DICER was specifically designed to allow a telescope to have the equivalent of a 30m optical surface area without having to be a fixed mirror. It’s the brainchild of astrophysicist Heidi Jo Newberg of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and uses a device called a diffraction grating.
Diffraction gratings are commonly used in spectrometers, where they split light into its individual wavelengths, effectively creating a rainbow from a single beam of light. In the case of DICER, each of these diffraction gratings is tens of meters long. However, that’s still small enough to fit entirely within a modern rocket fairing.
It also does not require tight coordination between different components, such as e.g. B. Alternate mission designs that attempt to use other design principles to circumvent the disguise limit. However, it requires massive supporting infrastructure as part of the telescope, such as B. a coronagraph that can block the light of a star.
The end result of all this technological wizardry would be a telescope in space that could effectively see exoplanets orbiting in the habitable zones of their Sun-like parent stars up to 30 light-years away. In fact, it would be able to find us what comes closest to a home away from home.
But there is still a long way to go before that happens. NIAC supports projects at a very early stage and there doesn’t seem to be much more than an idea and basic proof of concept design supporting this so far.
As it attracts more resources, that could change as new team members and new proofs of concept begin. dr Newberg even admits, “There are myriad optical, thermal, mechanical, and (and) launch/deployment trade-offs that must be considered to ensure this design is feasible…”. This is exactly the kind of project that is NIAC’s bread and butter, and eventually these compromises could lead to a truly extraordinary discovery.
This article was originally published on universe today by Andy Tomaswick. Read the original article here.