Stanford’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory is working on a two-satellite system, called mDOT, to image objects near distant stars. Much like the moon in a solar eclipse, one spacecraft would block the light from the star, allowing the other to observe objects near that star.
Credit: Space Rendezvous Laboratory

Micro-spacecraft and satellite formation-flying can be a key enabler in the quest to spot exoplanets orbiting distant stars.

Stanford University researchers are working on mDOT – standing for Miniaturized Distributed Occulter/Telescope.

Simone DAmico’s, director of the Space Rendezvous Laboratory at Stanford University is leading the work on mDOT. He is also assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford.

Two-satellite system

A two-satellite system, mDOT could image objects near distant stars. Much like the moon in a solar eclipse, one spacecraft would block the light from the star, allowing the other to observe objects near that star.

One craft – known as a starshade – would position itself like the moon in a solar eclipse, blocking out the light of a distant star, so a second spacecraft with a telescope could view the nearby exoplanets from within the shadow cast by the starshade.

Flower-like starshade

According to a Stanford news release, the system includes two parts: a 3-meter diameter starshade on a 100-kilogram microsatellite and a 10-centimeter diameter telescope on a 10-kilogram nanosatellite.

Space Rendezvous Laboratory researchers inside the Testbed for Rendezvous and Optical Navigation, a new facility where they test spacecraft motion in highly realistic illumination conditions.
Credit: Space Rendezvous Laboratory

The starshade and telescope would be deployed in high Earth orbit with a nominal separation of less than 1,000 kilometers.

At launch, the starshade would be folded along the sides of the dishwasher-sized microsatellite. Once in orbit, the starshade unfolds into a flower-like shape.

Direct glimpse

The miniaturized mDOT can’t resolve Earth-like planets because they are still too close to their parent stars. It could, however, provide a direct glimpse at another star system’s equivalent of Jupiter or help characterize exo-zodiacal dust concentrations around nearby stars.

The primary objective of the proposed mDOT is to provide a low-cost flight demonstration of starshade technology to increase the confidence of the scientific community in the capabilities of a full-scale observatory.

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