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Space NASA Technology

NASA Poised To Topple a Planet-Finding Barrier (nextbigfuture.com) 66

schwit1 shares a report from NextBigFuture.com: Babak Saif and Lee Feinberg at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have shown for the first time that they can dynamically detect subatomic- or picometer-sized distortions -- changes that are far smaller than an atom -- across a five-foot segmented telescope mirror and its support structure. Collaborating with Perry Greenfield at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the team now plans to use a next-generation tool and thermal test chamber to further refine their measurements. The measurement feat is good news to scientists studying future missions for finding and characterizing extrasolar Earth-like planets that potentially could support life. To find life, these observatories would have to gather and focus enough light to distinguish the planet's light from that of its much brighter parent star and then be able to dissect that light to discern different atmospheric chemical signatures, such as oxygen and methane. This would require a super-stable observatory whose optical components move or distort no more than 12 picometers, a measurement that is about one-tenth the size of a hydrogen atom.
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NASA Poised To Topple a Planet-Finding Barrier

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  • I am clearly no astrophysicist, but would it not be more effective to stick 4 or 5 hubble sized optical telescopes working as one large one in the L1 or L2 points?
    I know that it is more expensive, but with the cost of launches dropping as fast as they are, I should imagine this would be affordable by the time they can actually build the things.. which I guess is at least 10 years.
    Ideally they would put a research lab there as well.

    • Re: Space based? (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I guess you haven't heard of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

      Now launching in 2019 unfortunately. :-/

    • I think that's what this is about - making multiple telescopes work together. To get a high resolution from that the light has to interfere. The more accurate ths interference is controlled, the more accurate the image can be.
    • Re:Space based? (Score:4, Informative)

      by idji ( 984038 ) on Thursday February 01, 2018 @08:22AM (#56046487)
      You've basically described the James Web Telescope, it has 18 such mirrors. It's IR, but that is optical for cosmological distances.
    • Re:Space based? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Geoffrey.landis ( 926948 ) on Thursday February 01, 2018 @11:10AM (#56047201) Homepage

      To make multiple telescopes work together "working as one large one", you have to control the positions of their mirrors relative to each other to a small fraction of a wavelength. That's what this is about.

      I'm not sure what they need picometer accuracy for, though. That seems more than the requirement.

  • to find planets we'll never be able to reach! ;)

    Actually, with nanites to repair our bodies after being frozen for transport, we should be able to get to some of these planets in millions of years. However, you got to figure that homo-superior will be exterminating the last of our kind by then so we'll probably get exploded during transport.

    What a great time to be alive! ;)

    • by mentil ( 1748130 )

      If intelligent life 15 light years away can give us schematics for FTL drives, we could go there within a lifetime. That's a pretty good reason to invest in telescopes that can find life. Although if they detected a signal we sent them, they'd probably just come here first, since we probably wouldn't detect a FTL data signal if we were sent one.

      • If intelligent life 15 light years away can give us schematics for FTL drives, we could go there within a lifetime

        There are maybe 100 stars within a 15 light year radius, and the chance that any of them happen to have intelligent life right at this moment is very slim.

        • There are maybe 100 stars within a 15 light year radius, and the chance that any of them happen to have intelligent life right at this moment is very slim.

          Let's say there are exactly 100 stars within a 15 light year radius. Going by the process of elimination, we already know there's only 99 of those stars which could contain intelligent life around them.

          • by Anonymous Coward

            There are maybe 100 stars within a 15 light year radius, and the chance that any of them happen to have intelligent life right at this moment is very slim.

            Let's say there are exactly 100 stars within a 15 light year radius. Going by the process of elimination, we already know there's only 99 of those stars which could contain intelligent life around them.

            As has just been proven by this logic/maths. ;-)

        • There are maybe 100 stars within a 15 light year radius, and the chance that any of them happen to have intelligent life right at this moment is very slim.

          That depends on how long intelligent life typically lasts on a planet (as well as how often it evolves in the first place). Maybe it's typical for intelligent life to last billions of years. We don't know enough to say if it's likely or unlikely. The fact that we're a young species tells us nothing.

          • Maybe it's typical for intelligent life to last billions of years

            We've already seen the rise and fall of two dozen major civilizations here on Earth, so I wouldn't put my money on us surviving billions of years in a state capable enough to support interstellar communications.

      • >If intelligent life 15 light years away can give us schematics for FTL drives

        Then we have proof that either the Laws of Nature vary with location (because FTL is absolutely impossible here), or an alien prankster has control of the transmitter.

        • We don't actually know that FTL is absolutely impossible. It's just as possible as time travel backwards, and not everyone's convinced that's impossible.

      • by GoTeam ( 5042081 )
        One question, will the message containing the schematics for the FTL drives end in "this is not a drill"?
      • by mark-t ( 151149 )
        We don't even necessarily need FTL. to do it in a human lifetime... we could also take advantage of time dilation at speeds close to that of the speed of light to make journeys that might take many hundreds or even thousands of years in what is easily the lifespan of those on board the ship. I do not anticipate that a technology which might make that feasible would be discovered anytime this century.
    • Re:I can't wait... (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Thursday February 01, 2018 @08:20AM (#56046481)

      >to find planets we'll never be able to reach!

      It is entirely possible there are 'habitable' planets within reach of our technology - if we're willing to invest in building a heavily redundant generation ship and live forever in domes when we arrive at the destination, totally dependent on advanced technology for survival.

      If I were a gambler, I'd say finding a Mars-equivalent would be like hitting the jackpot...

      • by DontBeAMoran ( 4843879 ) on Thursday February 01, 2018 @09:25AM (#56046693)

        It is entirely possible there are 'habitable' planets within reach of our technology - if we're willing to invest in building a heavily redundant generation ship and live forever in domes when we arrive at the destination, totally dependent on advanced technology for survival.

        You never heard of atmosphere processors? It's a one terawatt fusion reactor power plant, about 1500 metres in height, manufactured by Weyland Corp.

        • It is entirely possible there are 'habitable' planets within reach of our technology - if we're willing to invest in building a heavily redundant generation ship and live forever in domes when we arrive at the destination, totally dependent on advanced technology for survival.

          You never heard of atmosphere processors? It's a one terawatt fusion reactor power plant, about 1500 metres in height, manufactured by Weyland Corp.

          For Mars, there's not really enough atmosphere to process, so what they really need is a smelter. it would take the iron, silicon, and aluminium oxides that are common on the planet and process them into building materials while pumping oxygen into the atmosphere. Other gases such as hydrogen and nitrogen would probably have to be shipped in from the satellites of Jupiter.

  • "NASA Poised To Topple a Planet-Finding Barrier" is the headline. Was there really a barrier to overcome here, or is it a milestone in improving capabilities?

    Chuck Yeager and the X-1 breaking the sound barrier is the archetype of this figure of speech. That genuinely was a barrier, because the aeronautics of supersonic flight are different than subsonic. There is a significant crossover - not exactly a discontinuity, but certainly an abrupt change - when going transonic. Progress in flying airplanes
    • "NASA Poised To Topple a Planet-Finding Barrier" is the headline. Was there really a barrier to overcome here, or is it a milestone in improving capabilities?

      Welcome to the English language, and the even worse news headlines. As someone who remembers the Watergate scandal, I'm tired of every scandal being named something-gate. The abuse of the word "literally" I find downright confusing at times. But I started to become inoculated against some of this when my daughter became a teenager. If the barrier thing is bothering you, just try sitting in a room full of teens and listen to them communicate in their pseudo English sometime.

  • by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Thursday February 01, 2018 @10:11AM (#56046865)

    China has astronomically qualified sites on the Tibetan Plateau at over 17,000 ft (5200 m) and is already a partner in the Thirty Meter Telescope project. Rather than waiting for the American legal gears to grind away into eternity, site it there and get it built. Because its southern hemisphere companion instrument is already under construction in Chile, the long-baseline possibilities are unparalleled.

    • Why build a thiry meter telescope, while the EU is already building its 39.3m Extremely Large Telescope [wikipedia.org]?
      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 )

        To look at more than one thing at a time?

      • The ELT is also in Chile, which has made astronomy into a real industry. It needs a companion instrument in the northern hemisphere, to see different stars and to eventually do advanced long-baseline observations in the band that both instruments have in common.

  • This is a great advance, but if we're talking solely about light-occlusion detection techniques*, aren't these results preconstrained by simple geometry to an astonishingly low subset of potential stellar systems?
    This requires:
    - the stellar main body must be physically occluded by the planet's orbital path (0.01% of systems at best, unless a) there's some sort of 'general ecliptic' for our galaxy AND b) we happen to be right on it)?
    *and*
    - the planet must actually be in that place in it's orbit; considering

  • I'm having trouble understanding the significance of 25-pm distortions (0.025nm) in an optical telescope, where the light you're bouncing around has wavelengths on the order of 20000 times more than that (400nm-650nm, longer for IR). Does interferometry really let us detect phase differences that small?

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