Sending a Fleet of Spacecraft to Find Habitable Planets Beyond Our Galaxy

A new project would turn the solar system into a giant optical lens

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The Solar Gravity Lens aims to capture images of planets tens or hundreds of light years away with surface resolution down to the scale of a few kilometers.

Concept of a Solar-Gravity Lens

As Einstein pointed out, light is not immune to the effects of gravity, but will be redirected when transiting near sufficiently massive objects. So, light coming from far beyond the sun will bend if transiting near its periphery, eventually converging to a focal region — just as if it had passed through a lens. If a light-sensing instrument could be placed at the focal region, it could capture images of planets tens or hundreds of light years away with surface resolution down to the scale of a few kilometers.

Aerospace is helping to design an innovative mission to view the surface of exoplanets light years away. This solar gravity lens project, being conducted jointly with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, essentially makes our solar system and beyond into a giant optical lens.

Solar Gravity Lens Project Challenges

The obstacles to such a mission are significant but not insurmountable. The first hurdle is simply getting a detector to the desired location in a reasonable amount of time. Traversing 25–30 AU per year would get it there in about 20 years — even in the space industry, that is considered a long time — and that rate of travel has never been achieved. “Navigation is not a trivial matter,” said Heinsheimer.

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In this concept, clusters of small satellites would be launched every other year, so that later groups could learn from earlier groups and track changes observed from the same position in space over time.

Spacecraft Travel to Exoplanets

Navigation could make use of X-ray pulsars, which would essentially function as GPS beacons in deep space. Mission functions could be distributed among the spacecraft, so some units could be dedicated to navigation, shepherding the entire flock to their destination. Clusters of spacecraft could be launched on a regular schedule; that would lower costs and encourage participation from across the space community. It would also enable scientists to target multiple planetary systems within the same exo-solar system at the same time. As for system reliability spanning multiple decades, “that’s not unreasonable,” Heinsheimer said, noting, “once you get out there, nothing bad happens.”

NASA Grant for Solar Gravity Lens Mission

Aerospace and JPL have been awarded a Phase 3 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts grant, only the third ever granted, to study the feasibility of the solar-gravity lens mission. JPL will focus on the science — for example, selecting candidate planets and processing the data — while Aerospace will tackle the technology — the architecture, operational concept, instrumentation, costs, schedule, and risks.

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.

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