The West

Giant flower helps spot alien planets
Giant 'flower' helps spot alien planets

A new Nasa invention could allow exoplanets to be photographed for the first time, London's Daily Mail reports.

The 'giant space sunflower' would act as a starshade to block light from stars while allowing telescopes to see orbiting planets.

An exoplanet is a planet which orbits a star outside our solar system.

The Daily Mail says Nasa's latest attempt to photograph an alien planet capable of sustaining light could revolutionise our knowledge of alien planets.

While astronomers have been monitoring exoplanets for over a decade. they say that picking them out among stars billions of times brighter is hopeless, especially when the planet is a small, rocky world like Earth.

So Nasa has spend considerable time developing techniques to block out starlight while preserving the light emitted by the planet, according to the Daily Mail.

The Mail reports that working in conjunction with a space-based telescope, the starshade is able to position itself precisely between the telescope and the star that's being observed, and can block the starlight before it even reaches the telescope's mirrors. With the starlight suppressed, light coming from exoplanets orbiting the star would be visible.

Engineer Dr Stuart Shaklan said the flower-shaped petals were part of what made the starshade so effective.

"The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves," Dr Shaklan said. "Less light bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images of the planets without being overwhelmed by starlight.

"The starshade is also unique in that, unlike most space-based instruments, it's one part of a two-spacecraft observation system.

"We can use a pre-existing space telescope to take the pictures.

"The starshade has thrusters that will allow it to move around in order to block the light from different stars."

The West Australian

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