A spacecraft that looks like a huge sunflower may now help NASA scientists to discover an alien planet.
The sunflower-shaped spacecraft, Starshade will deploy to its full size once in space, and will block the light of distant stars allowing space-based telescopes to capture images of exoplanets that are around the stars.
Scientists believe that with the use of this technology, researchers could take direct images of other planets with alien life. "It's a very specialized screen in space. It blocks out the light from the star," Space.com quoted Sara Seager, an astrophysicist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Only the planet's light enters the telescope. This is not what we normally do. Traditionally, the telescope does everything... It's the only way to find Earths with a relatively small and simple space telescope," she added.
The Starshade acts as a giant umbrella as it opens up and positions itself between the star and telescope. The spacecraft blocks the starlight, thereby potentially exposing the previously hidden exoplanets.
It will be equipped with thrusters that will plan the craft's different positions during the path of the mission. Although the spacecraft will take time to shift in between locations in search of its target, it can execute other research works until the next star appears.
"This is the first time we've actually seen this thing deploy. That was a huge accomplishment," New Scientist quoted Jeremy Kasdin, a researcher from Princeton University.
The expected cost of the alien-hunt spacecraft mission is around $1 billion and is targeting 55 stars over a period of three years.
"The shape of the petals, when seen from far away, creates a softer edge that causes less bending of light waves. Less light-bending means that the starshade shadow is very dark, so the telescope can take images without being overwhelmed by starlight," said Stuart Shaklan, lead engineer on the Starshade project.
Scientists aim to find exoplanets orbiting 22 of the 55 stars through this mission. The project is helpful as it has eliminated the need for expensive, large telescope, she emphasized.
"You don't need a very fancy telescope that's highly termally and mechanically stable. You can use any old telescope." Shaklan added.
Check out for the starshade video here: