Imagine trying to photograph a planet from trillions of miles away. Now imagine that planet is in another solar system, where the bright light of its parent star is outshining everything around it. This is what new technology from NASA is trying to do – capture the first images of planets outside our solar system – and you can make your own model of the spacecraft using origami!
Here's a look at two technologies that block starlight to give telescopes a better view of distant Earth-like planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube
Scientists have already discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. Some of these planets, called exoplanets, are thought to be similar to Earth. We can learn a lot about exoplanets (and we have) with existing technology like spectroscopy, but taking a picture could tell us so much more.
In the same way as we shield our eyes from the glare of the Sun by placing our hand at arm's length in front of our face, this new device, called Starshade, could shield a telescope's camera from the light of a distant star. Flying tens of thousands of kilometers in front of a space telescope, Starshade’s precise design would block light from a star so the telescope might be able to capture an image of the planets around the star. Scientists could then study these exoplanets to learn more about them and even search for signs of life.
When it’s unfurled, the sunflower-shape Starshade is about the size of a baseball diamond! That’s way too big to fit in a rocket, so NASA has developed a way of folding it – like you would origami – for launch. In fact, NASA brought in origami experts to help create the perfect design. Follow their lead and make your own paper origami model of Starshade’s “inner disk optical shield” following the steps below.