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Space Technology

Distant Planet Imaging Project Gets More Funding 264

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the dreaming-of-zoom-lenses dept.
It doesn't come easy writes "NASA's Institute for Advanced Concepts has chosen a proposal by the University of Colorado (UC) at Boulder to image distant planets around other stars for a second round of funding. Known as the New Worlds Observer, the UC project is for an orbiting, soccer-field sized "starshade" shaped like a daisy that would funnel light from distant planets between its petals to a second spacecraft trailing 50,000 miles behind. If the concept proves feasible, it could 'identify planetary features like oceans, continents, polar caps and cloud banks, and even detect biomarkers like methane, water, oxygen and ozone [...]'"
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Distant Planet Imaging Project Gets More Funding

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  • by dptalia (804960) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:09PM (#13775677) Homepage Journal
    ...we can see them building the invasion fleet in time.
  • But did they really have to shape it like a giant flower?
    • Re:Sounds cool... (Score:3, Informative)

      by CyricZ (887944)
      What other shape do you propose? Remember, it must be able to funnel light.

      • Send me the $400,000 and I'll send you a nice proposal with a bunch of alternate shapes.

        Remember -- I don't take checks.

    • Would a giant phallus be better?
    • Maybe it's just me, but the telescope array gave me herpes!
  • It sure sounds feasible to me. No alarm bells going off at all.

    All they need now is an artists impression of what it might look like.

  • Hey... (Score:3, Funny)

    by bc90021 (43730) * <bc90021.bc90021@net> on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:10PM (#13775695) Homepage
    ...I can see my house from here! ;-)

    • Re:Hey... (Score:3, Funny)

      by Tackhead (54550)
      > ...I can see my house from here! ;-)

      ...proving (much like the General and Special Theories of Disaster Area Tax Returns) that the whole fabric of the space-time continuum is not merely curved, but is in fact totally bent.

  • CU not UC (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    University of Colorado goes by CU.

    But cool project. It would be interesting to see what other worlds look like, not just know that they are there.
    • Re:CU not UC (Score:3, Informative)

      by coyote-san (38515)
      You beat me to it.

      For reference "UC" is California (UCLA for the LA campus, UCSD for the San Diego campus, you get the idea.)

      "UConn" is the University of Connecticut.

      "CU" is the University of Colorado, "DU" is the University of Denver.

      This sounds pendantic but searches for "UC" will bring up the wrong universities.
  • by CyricZ (887944) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:13PM (#13775723)
    How will the religious establishment react to such discoveries? Suppose a distant planet with many of the features of earth (oceans, deserts, mountains, etc.) is found. But let's not go so far as to say that plant life (or something like it) is found.

    How would the religious establishment react? Such discoveries would, in effect, refute many of the religious claims.

    We have already seen pseudo Christians going to extreme lengths to ban the teaching of evolution in places like Kansas and Tennessee. Would they take a similar route were discoveries that didn't mesh to well with their teachings to be found?

    • The same way they did back when they insisted the universe revolved around the earth and that we were enclosed in a series of layered spheres. That is to say, torture, imprison and kill those who promote "science" that is not in line with theological teaching. And we have just the administration to do it with the recently supported torture laws to allow for it. :)

      Anyway, this does seem a little bit like getting a map of China when you don't even have the means of transportation to get past the 7-11 at the e
      • Indeed, if I were an American that is what I would fear.

        Right now we don't have the technology to visit such places. But in perhaps 20 or 30 years we might. That's really not a very long time, all things considered. And with the pro-religion, anti-scientific stance of the current American administration, there's a very good chance that it won't be Americans visiting these planets for the first time. It may very well be the Chinese getting there first, just because they didn't let religion interfere with the
      • Anyway, this does seem a little bit like getting a map of China when you don't even have the means of transportation to get past the 7-11 at the end of your street.

        But finding something interesting there could drive faster development of the means to get there.
    • by temojen (678985) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:18PM (#13775771) Journal
      How would the discovery of other planets with earth-like features refute religious dogma?

      If there is an all powerful deity, surely it's within the power of such deity to create more than one earth.

      Genesis specifies how this earth was created. It says nothing of the existance or non-existance of others.

      It's kind of like how physics neither requires nor rules out any deity.
      • We will anxiously await sightings of the Jolly Roger, while dressed in full Pirate Regalia.

        How else would we react?
      • Yeah, you know how it goes... some planets take 7 days, some 8 or 9 days, a rush job God can do in, uh, about a day and a half...

        Are we forgetting that the bible claims our Earth is the center of the universe?

        • Are we forgetting that the bible claims our Earth is the center of the universe?
          I must have overlooked that verse. Please enlighten me.
      • by Rei (128717) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @03:29PM (#13776379) Homepage
        Ed Babinski wrote a good article [talkorigins.org] on some of the problems presented with life on other worlds (start at "All kidding aside").

        The presence of even lifeless planets beyond earth was deeply troubling for early theologans, and the concept was widely denied for theological reasons. "Great lights" that light noone's sky. Tracts of land far greater than those on Earth, doing nothing, for noone - I.e., God creating in vain. If they did have life, they couldn't trace it back to adam, et al. Such a huge act of creation, and God didn't see if fit to put a word of it in the bible? There were all sorts of major problems, and it took a long time to get it accepted.
      • I think most of them will handle it just fine. The reactionary minority will probably try very hard to discount this evidence. My take is that a lot of the problem would be that science not religion had discovered these new worlds, and that threatens some peoples' religious views. Perhaps, science is seen as a false authority that cannot ever be right.

        I expect that this will be portrayed as another NASA hoax.

      • If there is an all powerful deity, surely it's within the power of such deity to create more than one earth.

        It's also within his power to create purple giraffes with opposable thumbs. Many people however just don't like to believe that the Earth is NOT the center of their God's universe. Earth would then be demoted to the status of YAP (yet another planet).

        The existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe calls into question our own place in it. If we are just one of billions of intelligent

    • Simple. We all know the Flying Spaghetti Monster http://www.venganza.org/ [venganza.org] changes the signals and images and space and time itself to test us and challenge our faith.
    • First off, this it not funded yet. In fact, part of me would rather that we go back to getting our budget balanced, which will take some hard choices. Sadly, we made those back in the 90's to deal with Reagan's deficits. Now it has to be done all over again.

      Second, who says that they will believe it? People today seem to have a unique ability to ignore evidence and truth.
    • I think guidance as to what would happen can be found in the life of Gallileo.

      Also, it's relatively unclear what religious claims are invalidated by the existence of extrasolar planets. Prior to the discover of non-human intelligent life on another planet, Christianity, for example, would have pretty much no difficulty. God put all those planets and life forms there for us to enjoy when we are sufficiently technologically advanced, presumably.

      Theologically, things don't really get interesting at all until
    • Just posted on FARK today: Vatican astronomer ponders baptism of extra-terrestrials [cathnews.com]

      That's right. You show me some ET's, and I'll show you some Christians that want to baptize them.

    • How have they reacted to discoveries in the past?

      Either :
      1: Lock the person up.
      2: Deny that the observation is real.
      3: Make up a fake observation to counteract the real one.
      4: Invade the plannet in the name of good wiping out evil.
      5: Pray they don't come and invade us, but put a few draconian laws in place just in case they do.
    • Simple - the religious establishment doesn't NEED an explanation. Followers will simply shift to "faith" to fill in the gaps. If that doesn't work, the most remedial explanation will suffice to keep believers in line. Here's a few that would probably work:

      "God never said that He didn't create OTHER planets in addition to the Earth."

      "The Bible was not 'literal' when it talked about Earth being the center of the universe."

      "God made other Earths after He made this one. Our Earth was the first."

      [Be

    • Considering the religious establishment won't admit that according to the bible we're all the product of incest (Adam and Eve had Cain and Abel. Cain found a woman and had a child. Where did the woman come from unless it was Eve herself? After all, nowhere in the bible does it say God created anyone other than Adam and Eve.) so I'm sure they could come up with some lame excuse as to how life on another planet is still the work of God even though the first two lines of Genesis [carm.org] specifically state it was Ea
    • by Bogtha (906264) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:40PM (#13775974)

      How would the religious establishment react? Such discoveries would, in effect, refute many of the religious claims.

      Exactly how they've reacted for every other scientific discovery made in the past that contradicts religion - half of them will deny it, and half of them will quietly tell themselves that part of their religion is metaphorical (and always has been).

      We have already seen pseudo Christians going to extreme lengths to ban the teaching of evolution

      That's a perfect example. Half of them are denying it, and half of them are saying that Genesis is metaphorical (and always has been).

    • From this post: We have already seen pseudo Christians going to extreme lengths to ban the teaching of evolution in places like Kansas and Tennessee. Would they take a similar route were discoveries that didn't mesh to well with their teachings to be found?

      From another post in this thread you say to another poster:

      If they're going with a flower-shaped design, then there's most likely a very good reason for it. Considering that these people are far more intelligent than you, your idea is worthless

      Ca
    • I don't see how this is very different from discovering that some stars are significantly more than 6,000 light years from here.
  • by ScentCone (795499) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:16PM (#13775742)
    Clearly we are unable to function without Their Googly Appendages, so I don't know how NASA is going to pull this off. Although a soccer-field-sized Space Daisy observatory does sound like something eBay would acquire, and that might get Google interested in a competing Cricket-Pitch Space Tulip.
  • by Daysaway (916732) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:17PM (#13775751)
    Google plans to unveil their new software aptly named 'Google Solar System', which sews the surface maps of the planets together for an interactive flythrough.
    • It would be cool if they did that using maps.google.com for all the planets that we have mapped. Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and all the moons with each. It would be useful for kids to be able see that. Imagine zooming down to Mars from a POV of MGS, or perhaps images from one of the lunar mappers.

      Something like that combined with www.nineplanets.org, would be inspirational.
  • by Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:18PM (#13775768) Journal
    > it could 'identify planetary features like oceans,
    > continents, polar caps and cloud banks, and even
    > detect biomarkers like methane

    The bad part will come with version 3.0, launched in the later part of this century, when we zoom on on their alien babes on beaches, and see if they have silly laws regulating nudity, too. Or churches.

    Quite frankly, I'd be way more scared if they had churches than if they did not.
  • Phew. (Score:3, Funny)

    by mctk (840035) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:21PM (#13775794) Homepage
    Soccer field sized cameras, tiny robots for planetary surface investigation, an infrared observatory on the moon, giant, laser-trapped mirrors in space...

    Having recently watched Independence Day, I can say that I'm relieved that NASA is finally getting around to that RFDEW (Really F#*king Distant Early Warnings) system I've been proposing for years.

  • Steerable? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by david.given (6740) <dgNO@SPAMcowlark.com> on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:21PM (#13775798) Homepage Journal
    This thing appears to be a giant pinhole camera; there's a pinhole, which can be considered the lens assembly, which focuses light onto the sensor, 50'000km behind.

    Very cool. However, there's one little problem --- how the hell do you turn it? If the sensor's got to be 50'000km away from the lens, then to turn it 90 degrees (why does Slashdot block Unicode?) you're going to have to move the sensor some 70'000km, which means a lot of hydrazine.

    Or do they have something more cunning up their sleeves?

    • Re:Steerable? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by theycallmeB (606963)
      I (without RTFA) would suppose that the sensor would be in very nearly the same sun-orbiting track as the pinhole assembly to maintain the correct focal length. Thus, to turn the camera by 90 degrees in the plane of the orbit, you just have to wait for 1/4th or 3/4th (depending which way you wanted to turn) of the orbital period to transpire (3 or 9 months in an Earth-trailing orbit). If you want to turn it more than a few degrees (or even a few arc-minutess) out of plane, things would get complicated and
    • Perhaps the pinhole part has a mirror, the disk with the pinhole would be able to spin around a central axis (obviously it need some counterweight.) And inside this central axis there is are huge arrays of mirrors (the mirror surface needs to be as large as the pinhole) that can be used to aim the light at the trailing craft.

      (And no, this is slashdot, so I didn't read the article either.)
    • which means a lot of hydrazine

      Only if you need to go fast. If, instead, you go slowly then it's not a problem. 70,000km at 10km/h is about 291 days. Presumably once a general alignment is achieved many systems can be analyzed with only small changes.

      Hydrazine isn't the only available means of propulsion. This looks like a great application for an ion drive. The small thrust and easily controlled throttle would make frequent, precise alignment maneuvers easier than it might be with traditional thrusters
    • Very cool. However, there's one little problem --- how the hell do you turn it? If the sensor's got to be 50'000km away from the lens, then to turn it 90 degrees (why does Slashdot block Unicode?) you're going to have to move the sensor some 70'000km, which means a lot of hydrazine.

      Not true at all.

      Imagine a sunshade that's in Earth's orbit (not in orbit around Earth, but in the same orbit) with the sensor craft coorbital but trailing. In the course of a year, your field of view will traverse 360 degrees

    • Re:Steerable? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Zathrus (232140) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @03:11PM (#13776231) Homepage
      However, there's one little problem --- how the hell do you turn it?

      This is listed as a "problem" by the folks developing it.

      Actually, however, there's a much bigger problem. Presuming that you have the sensor facing away from the sun (if you don't, then you face even bigger issues), then the 50k km spacing leads to the two objects being in separate orbits. The sensor will travel around the sun at a slightly faster rate than the shield, which means you have to adjust orbits on a pretty frequent basis. This becomes less and less of a problem the further away from the sun you are (and being further away has its own advantages too), but it's still an issue no matter what.

      Keeping the entire thing in alignment is a huge problem -- even if you ignore needing to turn it (which you certainly will; it may be a pinhole camera, but the longer the exposure time the better the picture -- if you can pivot the entire thing continuously that is).
  • "Using photometry and spectroscopy, we could identify planetary features like oceans, continents, polar caps and cloud banks, and even detect biomarkers like methane, water, oxygen and ozone," said Cash.

    This reminded me of Star Trek, Ep. 37 'The Changeling'

    Nomad was sent out by Earth "in the early 2000s" according to Kirk on a mission to scout for life. Nomad collided with a meteor and was damaged and had lost a good portion of its memory until it encountered another probe, this one alien, with equ
  • biomarkers (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Conspiracy_Of_Doves (236787) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:25PM (#13775838)
    and even detect biomarkers like methane, water, oxygen and ozone

    I hope I live to see the day when this thing detects a faint glow on the planet's continents that are facing away from the planet's sun at that moment. *shudder*
    • by Robotdog (669611)
      That's just swamp gas reflected off of Venus.
    • when this thing detects a faint glow on the planet's continents that are facing away from the planet's sun

      You mean evidence of intelligent life? Cuz volcanoes can cause the same thing.

  • Accuracy a problem? (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ericfnj (921821)
    During the recent comet impactor mission, the accuracy needed to strike the probe onto the comet seemed to be at the limit of our abilities.

    Can we really move a pinhole shaped opening directly in front of the target at 50,000km?
  • by awol (98751) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:34PM (#13775920) Journal
    Google "Not" Earth then.... Or maybe GoogleGalaxy.
  • Blind Lake? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Mantrid (250133) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:41PM (#13775975) Journal
    Heh kind of reminds me of the book titled "Blind Lake" (sorry can't remember the author) Basically they had a super telescope getting more and more detail, hooking it up super computers for further analysis of the data, and more and more data starts pouring in from the computers in greater and greater detail...even after the original telescopes stop working!
  • More info (Score:3, Informative)

    by Zathrus (232140) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:41PM (#13775986) Homepage
    The NAIC [usra.edu] website has a smidgen more info on it -- namely that there were four other research projects funded [usra.edu] as well.

    There's a PDF [usra.edu] on this project that may contain more info, but my copy of Acrobat (6.0) declines to render the entire thing (or the PDF is junk, dunno which).

    There's also an article on Astrobio.net [astrobio.net] that gives little more detail than the CU link... but it does have links to other sources that may be informative. Really though, this concept seems to be in such an infancy stage that "simple" questions like "so how do you turn it?" haven't been answered yet (in fact, in this NASA link [nasa.gov] how to keep the two craft in alignment is listed as a "main technological hurdle").
  • by Locke2005 (849178) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @02:48PM (#13776033)
    With technology like this, we could even determine if the inhabitants of distant planets are so mindbogglingly primitive that they're still driving SUVs!
  • Great.... (Score:2, Funny)

    by zimus (68982)
    ... an orbiting, soccer-field sized "starshade" shaped like a daisy ...

    Let's just clue the entire galaxy in to the fact that so many hippies live here.
  • Whats percentage of these concept studies actually become vehicles and are launched? I'd guess it is a single-digit percentage. There are lots of nifty ideas out there compared to what NASA is able to implement.
  • by sytos (922406) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @03:37PM (#13776447)
    What they don't tell you is that it can focus sunlight into a tiny dot. Ah, the smell of burning aliens!
  • by CheshireCatCO (185193) on Wednesday October 12, 2005 @05:20PM (#13777230) Homepage
    Detection biomarkers like methane is pretty easy if you can isolate the light from the planet and can get a decent number of photons. (Either through a large collection area or long integrations.) You just look for the distinctive spectral bands for the molecules like methane or ozone. (Oxygen, alas, leaves little mark in the spectrum since it's a homonuclear diatomic molecule and light tends to ignore it.)

    Imaging the surfaces will be tougher. You'll need a damn wide apeture (long integration don't help and the resolving power goes linearly with apeture). Remember, we've only imaged a few stars so far, and most of those are larger (in angular size) than these planets. Crud, look at Cassini: we're only getting good images of moons in our own solar system now because we have a spacecraft flying close to them.

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