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Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on Oct 1, 2005 6:25:53 GMT -6
NASA Takes Giant Step Toward Finding Earth-Like Planets
Are we alone in the universe? Are there planets like Earth around other “suns” that might harbor life? Thanks to a recent technology breakthrough on a key NASA planet-finding project, the dream of answering those questions is no longer light-years away.
On a crystal clear, star-filled night at Hawaii’s Keck Observatory in Mauna Kea, NASA engineers successfully suppressed the blinding light of three stars, including the well-known Vega, by 100 times. This breakthrough will enable scientists to detect the dim dust disks around stars, where planets might be forming. Normally the disks are obscured by the glare of the starlight.
Engineers accomplished this challenging feat with the Keck Interferometer, which links the observatory’s two 10-meter (33-feet) telescopes. By combining light from the telescopes, the Keck Interferometer has a resolving power equivalent to a football-field sized telescope. The “technological touchdown” of blocking starlight was achieved by adding an instrument called a “nuller.”
This setup may eventually help scientists select targets for NASA’s envisioned Terrestrial Planet Finder missions. The success of those potential future missions, one observing in visible light and one in infrared, depends on being able to find Earth-like planets in the dust rings around stars.