The New Worlds Mission
is a project funded by NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts
(NIAC), headed by Dr. Webster Cash of the University of Colorado
in conjunction with Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp.
, Northrop Grumman
, Southwest Research Institute
and others. The project plans to build a large occulter
in space designed to block the light of nearby stars
in order to observe their orbiting planets. The observations could be taken with an existing space telescope, possibly the James Webb Space Telescope
when it launches, or a dedicated visible light telescope optimally designed for the task of finding exoplanets.
Currently, the direct detection of extrasolar planets
(or exoplanets) is extremely difficult. This is primarily due to:
- Exoplanets appear extremely close to their host stars when observed at astronomical distances. Even the closest of stars are several light years away. This means that while looking for exoplanets, one would typically be observing very small angles from the star, on the order of several tens of milli-arcseconds. Angles this small are impossible to resolve from the ground due to Astronomical seeing.
- Exoplanets are extremely dim compared to their host stars. Typically, the star will be approximately a billion times brighter than the orbiting planet. This makes it near-impossible to see planets against the star's glare.
The difficulty of observing such a dim planet so close to a bright star is the obstacle that has prevented astronomers from directly photographing exoplanets. To date, only a handful of exoplanets have been photographed . The first exoplanet to be photographed, 2M1207b, is in orbit around a star called 2M1207. Astronomers were able to photograph this planet because it is a very unusual planet. Specifically it does not suffer from the two difficulties mentioned above. It is very far from the host star, approximately 55 astronomical units (about twice the distance of Neptune). Furthermore, the planet is orbiting a very dim star, known as a brown dwarf. Because the planet is so far from its dim host star, it is not lost in the glare. However, this is a very specific scenario, and would be unlikely to be useful in finding Earth-like planets capable of supporting life.
To overcome the difficulty of distinguishing a planet in the glare of a bright star, the New Worlds Mission would block the star's light with an occulter. The occulter would block all of the starlight from reaching the observer, while allowing the planet's light to pass undisturbed.
Traditional methods of exoplanet detection all rely on indirect means of inferring the existence of orbiting bodies. These methods include:
- astrometry - watching a star move slightly due to the gravitational influence of a nearby planet
- Observing doppler shifts of the stars spectrum due to the star's movement
- Observing the amount of light from a star change as an extrasolar planet transits the star, preventing a portion of the light from reaching the observer.
- Pulsar timing
- Gravitational microlensing
- Observing radiation from Circumstellar disks in the infrared.
All of these methods provide convincing evidence for the existence of extrasolar planets, however none of them provide actual images of the planets.
The goal of the New Worlds Mission is to block the light coming from nearby stars with an occulter. This would allow the direct observation of orbiting planets. The occulter would be a large sheet disc flown thousands of kilometers along the line of sight. The disc would likely be several tens of meters in diameter and would fit inside existing expendable launch vehicles and be deployed after launch.
One difficulty with this concept is that light incoming from the target star would diffract around the disc and constructively interfere along the central axis. Thus the starlight would still be easily visible, making planet detection impossible. This concept was first famously theorized by Siméon Poisson in order to disprove the wave theory of light, as he believed the existence of a bright spot at the center of the shadow to be nonsensical. However Dominique Arago experimentally verified the existence of the spot of Arago. Fortunately this effect can be negated by specifically shaping the occulter. By adding specially shaped petals to the outer edge of the disc, the spot of Arago will disappear, allowing the suppression of the star's light.
This technique would make planetary detection possible for stars within approximately 10 parsecs (about 32 light years) of Earth. It is estimated that there could be as many as several thousands of exoplanets within that distance.
The starshade is a proposed sunflower
disc that was designed to block starlight that interferes with telescopic observations
of other worlds.
Specifically, the starshade is a spacecraft designed by Webster Cash, an astrophysicist at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy. The proposed spacecraft is designed to work in tandem with a space telescope, such as the James Webb Telescope, or a new 4 meter telscope. The starshade is designed to fly 80,000 miles in front of a space telescope, and is to be located between the space telescope and the star whose planetary system is being observed. When opened up, the unfurled starshade resembles a flower, with different pointed sections protruding around its circumference, similar to that of a sunflower.
The Starshade is a very large coronagraph, in the form of a dedicated spacecraft, that is designed to fly in front of a space telescope. This is a light-blocking shield whose purpose is to block light of a distant star, to make it easier to observe planets orbiting that distant star. If the spacecraft passes NASA standards, the starshade could be sent to space as early as 2013. The new starshade would be located approximately 238,600 miles away from Earth and outside its orbit. The unfurled starshade could provide a light reduction from bright stars by as much as a factor of 10 billion. The light that "leaks" around the edges would be used by the telescope as it scans the target system for planets. With the reduction of the harsh light, astronomers will be able to search much farther in space than they would with no light blocking, as well as be able to analyze the chemical atmosphere of planets that are tens of trillions of miles away for the possibility of life. After launch, it is estimated that within a 2-year period the starshade could help astronomers to get a better look at upwards of 75 different planetary systems.
The New Worlds Mission aims to discover and analyze terrestrial extrasolar planets
- Detection: First, using the space telescope and “starshade,” or occulter, exoplanetary systems will be directly detected. Currently, Doppler techniques, which have been used to find over 200 extrasolar planets to date, have trouble detecting low-mass Earth-like planets. These techniques tell us little more than mass and orbit for the extrasolar planet. Using the newly developed technology regarding starshade design, we will be able to directly detect planetary systems surrounding stars other than our Sun.
- System Mapping: Following detection, system mapping would involve the direct mapping of planetary systems through the detection of the planetary light separate from the parent star. In a sufficiently high-quality image, planets would appear as individual star-like objects. A series of images of the planetary system would allow us to measure the planetary orbits, and the brightness and broadband colors of the planets would give us information about the basic nature of each planet.
- Planet Studies: At this stage, detailed study of the individual planets will take place. With a low noise level and a modest signal, spectroscopy and photometry can be performed. Spectroscopy will allow us to perform chemical analysis of atmospheres and surfaces, which might hold clues to the existence of life elsewhere in the universe. Photometry will show variation in color and intensity as surface features rotate in and out of the field of view, allowing for the detection of oceans, continents, polar caps and clouds.
- Planet Imaging: A quantum leap in capability is needed to achieve true planet imaging. However, techniques of interferometry show that, in principle, this is possible to achieve. Fifty to one hundred percent of a planet’s surface could theoretically be mapped, depending on the planet’s inclination.
- Planetary Assessment: The final step in extrasolar planet studies will be the ability to study these distant worlds in the same way that Earth-observing systems study the Earth’s surface. Such a telescope will of necessity be large, to collect enough light to resolve and analyze small details on the planet’s surface. However, these kinds of studies do not lie in the foreseeable future, for it takes square kilometers of collecting area to capture the needed signal.
In addition to finding and analyzing terrestrial planets, it can also discover and analyze gas giants. The New Worlds Mission will also find moons and rings orbiting extrasolar planets. This technique will involve direct imaging of planets by blocking the starlight with a starshade. It will study the moons and rings in detail and find whether moons can also support life if gas giant planets orbit in the habitable zones of parent stars.
There are three possibilities for the New Worlds Mission.
- New Worlds Discoverer would use either an existing space telescope (like the soon to be launched James Webb telescope), or a several meter diameter visible light telescope dedicated to finding exoplanets. The size of the starshade could be optimized for the observing telescope. The possibility of two starshades is also a consideration. One starshade to point towards the desired target while the other moves into position for the next target. This would eliminate the time delay in observing different systems and allow for many more targets to be observed in the same timespan.
- New Worlds Observer would use two spacecraft and two starshades increase the angular resolution and allow better analysis of the exoplanet's composition
- New Worlds Imager would use five spacecraft/starshades. This would allow observers to resolve the planet and obtain true planetary imaging.
Dr. Cash was granted $400,000 US for initial research on this project by NIAC in October 2005
. A proposal was submitted to NASA in early 2006 for a discovery class mission. Three competing projects will be chosen for further study in late 2006.
In February 2008, NASA commited $3 billion to the New Worlds Observer mission.