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March 18, 2016

Astronomers have discovered dozens of planets in other star systems that are in the “habitable zone” — the distance from the star where temperatures are just right for liquid water — a key ingredient for life. Yet so far, they haven’t actually seen a single one of them. The planets are all so close to their stars that they’re impossible to see through the starlight.

But scientists and engineers are working on a device that could bring some of these planets to light. Called Starshade, it would work in tandem with a space telescope to block a star’s light, allowing its planets to shine through.

The current design looks like a 10-story sunflower with spikes at the ends of its petals. It would be launched to a point in space where the gravity of Earth, Sun, and Moon are balanced.

There, it would be maneuvered to a spot about 25,000 miles from the telescope. The telescope would take aim at a star within a few dozen light-years that’s known to have a planet in the habitable zone. Starshade would line up in front of the star, blocking it from view. The telescope could then take pictures of the planet and measure the composition of its atmosphere, allowing scientists to look for evidence of life.

The concept has been tested on a telescope in Arizona, and the idea of a starshade is ranked highly by scientists. Even if it’s approved, though, it’ll take a decade or longer for this cosmic flower to bloom — and help look for evidence of life in other star systems.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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