NASA wants help designing a Starshade to find Earth-like planets

It’s time to hone your origami skills. NASA is asking the public for ideas on how to make a star that could be slipped into a rocket, launched into orbit and then deployed into space to a size of 330 feet (100 meters) in diameter.

Astronomers are looking for Earth-like exoplanets. These small, rocky worlds can be difficult to spot and study because the light from their host stars drowns them out as our telescopes search for them. A starshade is supposed to solve this problem by blocking the glare from a star to allow telescopes to see the light reflecting off the planets around it. “This light is influenced by the surface minerals, oceans, continents, weather, vegetation and gases that make up its atmosphere,” NASA said in a statement Monday. Looking closely at this light can tell us a lot about a planet, including how similar it might be to our own.

The starshade concept has been around at NASA for years. One idea would be to use a starshade in conjunction with a space observatory. The current design request uses existing telescopes that are already in service on the ground. NASA calls it the Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets, aka HOEE, because it combines terrestrial and space components.

NASA JPL shared a video in 2014 showing how a starshade would work with a space telescope along with images of an opening prototype.

NASA’s Starshade Ideas Request is hosted on the GrabCAD site, a gathering place for engineers, designers, and STEM students and professionals. It lasts for 36 days and offers $7,000 (£5,840 / AU$10,240) in prizes for the best designs.

The space agency is looking for a lightweight, low-mass, and fuel-efficient design. It needs to pack small for launch, then open wide once in space. It should also be able to maneuver into precise positions in order to line up with telescopes on Earth.

The design of the starshade seems pretty wild, but the potential for amazing discoveries is why NASA keeps coming back to it. As NASA put it, the HOEE would “convert Earth’s largest telescopes into the most powerful planet finders ever made.” Ultimately, it would be part of one of the greatest scientific quests of all time: the search for extraterrestrial life. Are there other Earths? A starry shadow might help us find out.

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