To date, we have discovered more than 5,000 alien worlds in our galaxy alone. There are thousands of solar systems out there, and thousands of still unconfirmed exoplanets orbiting distant stars. Some of these planets are inhospitable either because they orbit their star too far or too closely, but some of them are like Earth, and revolve around their sun at just the right distance for life as we know it to maybe exist.
When astronomers discover new worlds and confirm their existence through indirect observations, we do not really obtain much information about the exoplanets. We can calculate the mass, size, and speed at which they orbit their stars, but not much more than that.
Imaging alien worlds directly is nearly impossible, because we lack the necessary technology and equipment.
But what if we could make the “universe” work for “us”?
A new technique
Scientists at Stanford have come up with a revolutionary idea: take advantage of gravity’s warping effect on space-time —a phenomenon called lensing— and manipulate the phenomenon to take images that are far more advanced than anything we can now.
According to a statement from Stanford, the newly-proposed imaging technique would be “1,000 times more precise than the strongest imaging technology currently in use.”
In the study, the researchers describe a method for imaging planets beyond our solar system by manipulating solar gravitational lensing.
Researchers would take advantage of the sun’s gravitational field to magnify light from the exoplanet by aligning a telescope, the sun, and the exoplanet in line with the sun in the middle, “using the universe” as a giant magnifying glass.
While a magnifying glass bends light with its curved surface, a gravitational lens bends spacetime to enable the observation of distant objects.
“We want to take pictures of planets that are orbiting other stars that are as good as the pictures we can make of planets in our own solar system,” revealed Bruce Macintosh, a physics professor at the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford.
“With this technology, we hope to take a picture of a planet 100 light-years away that has the same impact as Apollo 8’s picture of Earth.”
Presently, their proposal requires more advanced space travel than is currently possible. However, in spite of the challenges, the researchers believe the concept is worth considering further and developing since it could reveal information about distant alien planets, which is crucial if we are to discover a world that can support life as we know it.
In 1919, a solar eclipse led to the first experimental observation of gravitational lensing. Because the moon obstructed the light from the sun, scientists were able to observe stars near the sun at a different place than their known location.
It was the first observational proof that Einstein’s theory of relativity was correct and that gravity could bend light.
In 1979, astronomers and spacecraft could exploit the solar gravitational lensing thanks to a detailed account by Stanford professor Von Eshleman.
In 2020, the imaging technique was investigated in-depth for observing planets. Slava Turyshev of Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory described the possibility of using rockets to scan around the rays of light coming from a planet to reconstruct a clear picture.
However, using rockets would require a lot of fuel and time.
KIPAC Ph.D. student Alexander Madurowicz developed a method to reconstruct a planet’s surface from a single solar-facing image, improving on Turyshev’s work.
An algorithm designed by Madurowicz can undistort the light coming from the ring of light created by the exoplanet by reversing the bending created by the gravitational lens, which turns the ring back into a planet.
While this sounds promising, the biggest issue with this technique is that, to capture an image of an exoplanet taking advantage of the solar gravitational lensing effect, we would have to place a telescope at least 14 times farther away from the sun than Pluto, which means past the very “edge” of our solar system. Given our current technology, this would be a gargantuan undertaking.
“By unbending the light bent by the sun, an image can be created far beyond that of an ordinary telescope,” Madurowicz explained.
“So, the scientific potential is an untapped mystery because it’s opening this new observing capability that doesn’t yet exist.”
Further reading and source: Stanford
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