NASA hosts contest to design starshade that will help find Earth-like planets

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NASA is conducting an early-stage study of the concept of a hybrid observatory that combines a ground-based telescope with a space-based starshade. The starshade is for blocking glare from stars while observing exoplanets. The Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE) concept is aimed at helping the largest terrestrial telescopes find Earth-like planets. And the space agency is inviting the public to be part of this ambitious project.

NASA is hosting the Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge, which asks participants to develop a lightweight starshade structure that can be used as part of the HOEE concept. The design should allow for it to be packaged compactly and deployed successfully once it is in Earth’s orbit. Also, it should be as light as possible so that chemical thrusters can keep it aligned and propulsion systems can change its orbit while using as little fuel as possible.

One method to determine the potential habitability of an exoplanet in space is to observe the light it reflects from the star it orbits. This light will be influenced by surface minerals, oceans, continents, weather, vegetation and its atmosphere. But the planet’s star often produces a glare when observing the planet from ground-based telescopes, causing disruptions to observation. In theory, starshades can cast a dark shadow over the star without blocking the light reflected by its planets.

“The hybrid observatory might help us answer some of the most pressing questions about extraterrestrial life. Observing many systems would help answer the question of why configurations like our own are rare and why none is quite like home. It is truly exciting that the public can be part of this revolutionary effort. I can’t wait to see what ideas they bring to the table,” John Mather, senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, in a press statement.

The submission deadline for the Ultralight Starshade Structural Design Challenge is August 22 and the top five submissions will share a prize purse of $7,000. The contest is administered by GrabCAD and more details can be found on its website for submissions.

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