UNITED STATES: The Institute for Advanced Concepts at NASA is well known for funding incredible theories in the domains of astronomy and space travel. The institute has funded a wide range of initiatives as part of its three-phase programme since it was re-established in 2011.
Only three initiatives, nevertheless, have received money for Phase III thus far. One of them just published a white paper outlining a quest to build a telescope that may successfully observe biosignatures on nearby exoplanets by using our own Sun’s gravitational lens.
The $2 million in funding for that Phase III distinction went to JPL, whose scientist Slava Turyshev served as the project’s chief investigator for the project’s first two stages.
For this most recent white paper, he collaborated with The Aerospace Corporation. It provides a more detailed description of a mission concept, currently available technologies, and those that require development.
However, there are several noteworthy aspects to this mission concept, one of which is discussed in more depth at Centauri Dreams.
The planned mission would launch multiple little cube-sats and then self-assemble on the 25-year voyage out to the solar gravitational lens (SGL) point rather than launching a big craft that would take a long time to go anywhere.
That so-called “point” is a straight line that connects the exoplanet’s host star and a location between 550 and 1000 AU on the opposite side of the Sun. That is a vast distance, far greater than the meagre 156 AU that Voyager 1 has already travelled over the course of 44 years.
So how did a spacecraft travel three times as far in practically half the time? It will dive (nearly) into the Sun, plain and simple.
A tried and true technique is to use the Sun’s gravitational boost. The Parker Solar Probe, the fastest object created by humans, employed such a method.
The estimated speed at which this expedition would have to move is difficult, increasing to 25 AU each year. And if a fleet of ships were involved rather than just one, it would be far more complex.
The first issue would be material, as solar sails, the mission’s primary means of propulsion, don’t fare well when subjected to the kind of solar energy needed for a gravitational slingshot.
The electronics on the system would also need to be significantly more radiation-resistant than present technology. However, both of these well-known issues may have answers; study on both is ongoing.
Another challenge that would appear to be transparent would be how to plan the passage of several satellites through this type of agonising gravitational movement while still allowing them to prepare to team together to create a fully operating spaceship ultimately.
However, the authors of the research claim that there will be enough time throughout the 25-year journey to the observing point to actively reunite the individual Cubesats into a cohesive whole.
A more accurate picture of an exoplanet, which humanity is likely to obtain short of a fully-fledged interstellar expedition, may arise from that unified whole.
If the expedition proceeds, there will be much discussion over which exoplanet would make the most significant contender because more than 50 have already been discovered in the habitable regions of their stars. However, there is currently no assurance of such. The mission hasn’t received any money, and there’s no sign that it will any time soon. Before such a trip could even be attempted, many technologies would still need to be developed.
However, it is precisely how these missions always begin, and this one could have a greater effect than most. Hopefully, we will see an image of an exoplanet that may be habitable soon that is as clear as the one we are most likely to see in the medium future.
The research team deserves recognition for creating the foundation for such an idea in the first place.