NASA’s giant space umbrella Starshade could help find alien life. A massive screen called a starshade would be positioned in space to fly in formation with a space telescope, at an angle blocking a particular star’s light and creating a high-contrast shadow. That way, only the light of an orbiting exoplanet would enter the telescope.
Think of it as a really big beach umbrella, or perhaps the sun visors on your car windshield. But visually, it’ll probably look more like a giant flower, with metal petals along its edges to block more starlight around the possible location of an exoplanet in the sky. In 2015, engineers for aerospace contractor Northrop Grumman, which would build the starshade, tested different designs with the the earthbound McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope in Arizona. They found that petal-shaped designs worked better than a circular version.
“If we can feather the edges, soften those edges so we can control diffraction, well, then we can see a planet,” explained Princeton University aerospace engineer Jeremy Kasdin, who is helping to develop the starshade, in a 2014 TED Talk. Also, there still are significant technical hurdles to be overcome. One big challenge: Figuring how to fly a starshade in tight formation with a telescope that’s more than 30,000 miles (48,280 kilometers) away, the distance described by Kasdin in his TED presentation. If all those details are worked out successfully, a starshade could be deployed by 2024, according to the report.