NASA Wants to Build a 'Starshade' to Hunt Alien Planets. Here's How It Would Work

This latter probe would be equipped with a large, flat, petaled shade designed to block starlight, potentially allowing the telescope to directly image orbiting alien worlds as small as Earth that would otherwise be lost in the glare.

For such a project to work, the two spacecraft would need to be aligned incredibly precisely — to within about 3 feet (1 meter) of each other, NASA officials said.

"The distances we're talking about for the starshade technology are kind of hard to imagine," Michael Bottom, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, fellow JPL engineer Thibault Flinois and his colleagues came up with their own suite of algorithms, which use information from Bottom's program to determine when the starshade should autonomously fire its thrusters to maintain alignment.

Put together, this work — which is detailed in a report completed earlier this year — suggests that starshade missions are technologically feasible.

Indeed, it should be possible to keep a big starshade and a space telescope aligned at distances up to 46,000 miles (74,000 km), NASA officials said.

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