Proof that new space telescopes could directly see other earths

Improved mirrors and light masks have been demonstrated in the lab which would enable telescopes to directly image earth sized planets with a space telescope. This accomplishment marks a dramatic step forward for missions like the proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder, designed to hunt for an Earth twin that might harbor life. They have shown that a fairly simple coronagraph – an instrument used to “mask” a star’s glare – paired with an adjustable mirror, could enable a space telescope to image a distant planet 10 billion times fainter than its central star. For their next steps, Trauger and Traub plan to improve the suppression of speckles by a factor of 10, and extend the method to accommodate many wavelengths of light simultaneously.

Three simulated planets — one as bright as Jupiter, one half as bright as Jupiter and one as faint as Earth — stand out plainly in this image created from a sequence of 480 images captured by the High Contrast Imaging Testbed at JPL. A roll-subtraction technique, borrowed from space astronomy, was used to distinguish planets from background light. The asterisk marks the location of the system’s simulated star. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech