In the study, a team of researchers from Stanford University proposed a technique for studying exoplanets that uses gravitational lensan effect that occurs around massive celestial bodies where the gravity objects is strong enough to bend spacetime. An object seen through this curved region of spacetime appears closer and larger, as if viewed through a magnifying lens. Combining the power of space telescopes and gravitational lensing could improve the accuracy of imaging exoplanetsplanets orbiting other stars 1,000 times, researchers say in a report.
“We want to take pictures of planets orbiting other stars that are as good as the pictures we can take of planets in our own. solar system“, said Bruce Macintosh, professor of physics at the Stanford School of Humanities and associate director of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC). “With this technology, we hope to take a picture of a planet at 100 light-years that has the same impact as the image of the Earth from Apollo 8.”
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So far, however, the technique described in this study only works in theory. For a telescope to use the gravitational lens with the sun, it would have to be placed 14 times farther from the Sun than the dwarf planet Pluto, the scientists said in the statement. No man-made spacecraft has ever ventured this far.
Since even the closest exoplanets are dozens of Light years far away, it would take an extremely large telescope to see them in detail without a gravitational lens. Scientists estimate that a telescope should be 20 times wider than Earth to see these worlds in detail, the researchers said.
With the gravitational lens, the team thinks they would be able to see surface structures on these planets with observatories the size of The Hubble Space Telescope.
“The solar gravitational lens opens up a whole new window of observation,” Alexander Madurowicz, a KIPAC doctoral student and lead author of the study, said in the release. “This will allow studying the detailed dynamics of planetary atmospheres, as well as the distribution of clouds and surface features, which we have no means of studying now.”
Once they can see such minute details, astronomers can easily determine if life can exist on any of these distant worlds.
The gravitational lensing method described in this study would allow astronomers to reconstruct the image of a planet’s surface from a single image taken by looking directly at the sun, the researchers said. With this newly described technique, a telescope view of an exoplanet would create a “ring of light” in the sun’s gravitational lens. A special algorithm designed by the Stanford University team could then distort the light by “reversing the bending of the gravitational lens, which turns the ring into a round planet,” the researchers said in the statement.
“By unfolding light bent by the sun, an image can be created far beyond that of an ordinary telescope,” Madurowicz said. “So the scientific potential is an untapped mystery because it opens up this new capacity for observation that doesn’t yet exist.”
The work was inspired by an earlier paper by scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. This article proposed a space telescope that would use rockets to scan rays of light from a planet to reconstruct a clear image. The technique, however, would require a lot of fuel and time, the researchers said.