Throwing (star)shade: a super cool way to find new planets
Last week, NASA made a huge discovery: Kepler-186f — a planet the same size as Earth in the habitable zone of its star, meaning it might be able to harbor life.
Astronomer Jeremy Kasdin thinks we could find a lot more like it. See, astronomers like him believe that every star in the galaxy has at least one planet, and that up to ⅕ of those may be an Earth-like planet capable of housing life. The trouble is finding them. The thing is, it’s pretty tricky to photograph a far-away planet with a telescope, partly because — sorta like when you’re smiling for a family photo at the beach — a lot of light gets in the way, thanks to really bright stars like our sun.
Enter the starshade. Starshades are man-made screens that block a star’s light — think eclipse — allowing a telescope to see that star’s planets clearly. For Kasdin and his colleagues, this means developing a giant flower-shaped screen half the size of a football field that separates from a space telescope, flips and flies 50,000 km away to block the light of a star.
If this starshade really works — and so far a sample has worked in 16 trials — we could get direct images of planets beyond the solar system. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll finally find aliens.
Watch the full talk »