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Aerospace and JPL Develop Concept to View Distant Planets

EL SEGUNDO, Calif., Nov. 19, 2018 – In a new development in the search for potentially habitable planets far beyond our solar system, JPL and Aerospace are conducting a study to further develop an innovative deep-space concept that relies on a solar gravity lens (SGL) to enable enhanced viewing of exoplanets.

The SGL would provide 100-billion optical magnification, allowing it to show details as small as 10 kilometers across – similar to being able to spot something the size of New York City on an exoplanet. 

“The SGL concept may become part of the scientific quest to explore our cosmic neighborhood,” said Steve Isakowitz, Aerospace’s president and CEO. “The team has leveraged an incredible array of groundbreaking technologies that have applications that go beyond exoplanet exploration. They will serve future national security, civil, and commercial missions that will keep our nation at the cutting edge.”

According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, light traveling through space will bend if it passes near sufficiently massive objects. This means that distant light will bend around the periphery of the sun, eventually converging toward a focal region as if it had passed through a lens. The SGL mission would send spacecraft to that region to view the focused light.

“SGL requires placement of an array of detectors that starts to observe the light from exoplanets once they arrive at a distance of approximately 50 billion miles or 550 astronomical units (AU) away from Earth,” said Tom Heinsheimer, Aerospace’s technical co-lead for SGL. “To get to that solar gravity line, the swarm of spacecraft will need to use a solar sail to fly out of the solar system at a velocity of over 75 miles per second.”

Navigation and propulsion technologies will need to keep the sensors on the spacecraft flying in the one-mile-wide line that contains the light from the exoplanet. The roundtrip communications link of six light days will make ground control of the spacecraft impractical, so the spacecraft will need to be adaptable and able to learn from experience.

Henry Helvajian, senior scientist in Aerospace’s Physical Sciences Laboratory and technical co-lead of SGL said, “Mission functions are distributed among the spacecraft so that some units could be dedicated to shepherding the entire swarm to their destination. The technologies involved in the distributed swarm — longevity, agility, autonomy, and self-learning — could revolutionize the space industry as a whole and significantly advance national security space objectives.”

To undertake the two-year SGL study, Aerospace was awarded $130,000 from Phase II of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program through a contract with JPL in Pasadena, Calif., which leads the overall NIAC study. 

Last year, Aerospace and JPL engineers took part in a technical brainstorming session at Aerospace’s Innovation Lab (iLab) to discuss the SGL concept. iLab fosters the development, acceleration, and transfer of new technologies that are critical to its customers. iLab researchers are currently developing solutions to unique engineering issues such as position, navigation, and timing (PNT);  trajectory analysis; propulsion; communication link budget; and power distribution. That knowledge and technology is applicable to the SGL concept.

Solar Gravity Lens Concept

About The Aerospace Corporation

The Aerospace Corporation is a national nonprofit corporation that operates a federally funded research and development center and has more than 4,200 employees. With major locations in El Segundo, California; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Colorado Springs, Colorado; and the Washington, D.C. region, Aerospace addresses complex problems across the space enterprise and other areas of national and international significance through agility, innovation, and objective technical leadership. For more information, visit Follow us on Twitter: @AerospaceCorp.


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