Space Telescope

NASA's Starshade is a Massive Umbrella that Blocks Starlight

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When you're trying to see something and the sun is in your eyes, you probably put your hand up to block it. NASA has run into the same problem with the sun—or should we say, suns. The light from distant stars interferes with their telescopes' ability to see, too. To fix that, they're developing a device that works a lot like your hand does.

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An artist’s depiction of the fully-deployed starshade spacecraft (left) next to the spacetelescope it supports. The two spacecraft must fly in almost perfect alignment to allow thetelescope to stay in the shadow created by the starshade.

Flower Power

Astronomers predict that there's at least one planet orbiting every star we see in the sky, and although we've found thousands of them, we have very few images to show for it. The stars these planets orbit are often billions of times brighter than the light the planets reflect, making it nearly impossible to make them out with even our most powerful telescopes.

NASA's solution to this will sound familiar to most of us: block the light of the star, just like you would block the sun with your hand to see an object in the sky. To this end, engineers are developing a starshade that measures tens of meters across and flies independently thousands of meters away from its telescope. The shade has flower-shaped petals that minimize the bending of light for a darker shadow and clearer images. To make it easier to launch from Earth, ancient principles of origami helped NASA engineers fold the shade in a way that makes it easy to unfurl when it gets to space.

A 10-m prototype of the starshade’s inner disk is demonstrated at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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NASA's Starshade

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Key Facts In This Video

  1. Many stars are billions of times brighter than the light reflecting off of the planets around them. If you can block the star's light, you can study the planets in more detail. 00:11

  2. NASA's starshade is the size of a baseball diamond, and is designed to fly tens of thousands of miles away from its telescope. 01:10

  3. The size of a pinhead, the coronagraph fits on the telescope itself to block out only the light of the star. 02:31

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