NASA’s Advanced Concepts Institute is renowned for supporting outlandish ideas in astronomy and space exploration. Since its re-establishment in 2011, the Institute has supported a wide range of projects.
So far, however, only 3 projects that have received Phase III funding have continued. And one of them was a study with a mission to build a telescope that could effectively see biosignatures on nearby exoplanets using the gravitational lens of our own Sun.
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This Phase III separation translates into funding of USD 2 million.
The Aerospace company was engaged for this latest technical review, which identifies which technologies are already available and which need further development.
Instead of launching a large ship that would take a long time to travel anywhere, the proposed mission would launch several small satellites, which would then self-assemble on the 25-year journey to the solar gravitational lens (SGL) point.
This “point” is actually a straight line between any star in the exoplanet’s neighborhood and somewhere between 550-1000 AU on the other side of the Sun. That’s an enormous distance, much farther than the 156 AU Voyager 1 has traveled so far in 44 years.
Using gravitational assist from the Sun is a tried and true method. The Parker Solar Probe, the fastest man-made object ever, used just such a technique.
But it’s not easy for satellites to travel at the speed limit, which has been raised to 25 AU per year. And it would be even more challenging for a fleet of ships rather than a single one.
The first problem would be materials. Material exposed to such a high density of the Sun is not going to do very well.
In addition, the electronics in the system would need to be much more heavily reinforced than the technology currently available. However, both of these known problems have potential solutions under active research.
Another seemingly obvious problem is how to coordinate a passage of multiple satellites through such gravitational maneuvering and still effectively combine to eventually form a fully functional spacecraft.
But according to the authors of the paper, there will be more than enough time for that in the 25-year journey.
Which exoplanet would be the best candidate, if the mission goes ahead, will be a hot topic of debate. But that is out of the question for now. And many technologies still need to be developed before such a mission can be realized.
The team behind this research deserves credit for paving the way for such an idea.