NASA scientists have devised a radical plan to use the sun as a sort of massive magnifying glass telescope to view alien worlds in ultra-high resolution. They will be tapping into an effect known as gravitational lensing. The plan was revealed in a proposal during the recent Planetary Science Vision 2050 workshop in Washington, D.C. by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It could allow NASA and other space agencies to take a closer look at other exoplanets in greater detail, possibly revealing surface features and signs of habitability. While most telescopic and photographic systems today simply rely on a few pixels to view distant worlds and are limited in size and baseline distance, a device of this kind could essentially use the sun’s gravity as a magnifying glass to achieve 1000×1000 pixel imaging.
Scientists say this new system could push imaging capabilities much further by utilizing the sun. The natural high-ground for multi-pixel imaging of exoplanets resides along the line (region) called the Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL) Focus that takes advantage of the fact that the Sun’s large gravitational field focuses light from faint, distant sources into the SGL region. This is why the sun is being called a ‘magnifying glass’ because it reflects the light from distant sources. The plan, therefore, would be to deploy an optical telescope based on this effect, giving that telescope the ability to directly image Earth-like exoplanets.
This concept actually harkens back to college-level lessons on Einstein’s theory of relativity which explains that gravity induces refractive properties in space-time. This means that a massive object such as the sun can act as a lens by bending light. Naturally, of all the bodies in the solar system, only the sun is massive enough that the focal length resides within the range of a telescope that’s launched into space. Of course, like any massive plan from NASA based on past experiences, this one faces its own challenges. Such a telescope can only work at the solar system’s focal point. This specific focal point in interstellar space is nearly 14 times farther away beyond Pluto’s orbit. At present, the furthest traveled craft from earth has only been the Voyager 1 spacecraft that has only made it roughly a fifth of this distance in the last 50 years.
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If NASA were to implement an aggressive launch using modern propulsion technology to speed up the process, a new spacecraft could reach where Voyager is presently at in just a few years. But this also means it would still take an additional 50 years just to get near the focal point. This makes the proposal NASA’s most ambitious to date, even more radical than its plan to land humans on the moon and Mars. The scientists suggests that the telescope could be outfitted to make other observations while on the way to Pluto, such as studying the other planets and moons it passes by on the way to the focal point.