Aerospace’s artist rendering of the Solar Gravity Lens concept which will enable enhanced viewing of potentially habitable exoplanets.
Credit: The Aerospace Corporation

 

An innovative deep-space concept that relies on a solar gravity lens (SGL) to enable enhanced viewing of exoplanets is under study by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and The Aerospace Corporation.

The SGL would provide 100-billion optical magnification, allowing it to show details as small as 10 kilometers across – similar to being able to spot something the size of New York City on an exoplanet.

As detailed in a press statement from The Aerospace Corporation, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, light traveling through space will bend if it passes near sufficiently massive objects. This means that distant light will bend around the periphery of the sun, eventually converging toward a focal region as if it had passed through a lens.

The SGL mission would send spacecraft to that region to view the focused light.

Aerospace’s artist rendering of a swarm of spacecraft flying out of the solar system at a velocity of over 75 miles per second to reach the solar gravity line.
Credit: The Aerospace Corporation

Array of detectors

“SGL requires placement of an array of detectors that starts to observe the light from exoplanets once they arrive at a distance of approximately 50 billion miles or 550 astronomical units (AU) away from Earth,” said Tom Heinsheimer, Aerospace’s technical co-lead for SGL.

“To get to that solar gravity line,” Heinsheimer says, “the swarm of spacecraft will need to use a solar sail to fly out of the solar system at a velocity of over 75 miles per second.”

Stay in line!

Navigation and propulsion technologies will need to keep the sensors on the spacecraft flying in the one-mile-wide line that contains the light from the exoplanet. The roundtrip communications link of six light days will make ground control of the spacecraft impractical, so the spacecraft will need to be adaptable and able to learn from experience.

To undertake the two-year SGL study, Aerospace was awarded $130,000 from Phase II of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program through a contract with JPL which leads the overall NIAC study.

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