Home Sciences The Sun could reveal alien worlds by becoming a huge telescope

The Sun could reveal alien worlds by becoming a huge telescope

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Scientists think we could reveal detailed views of distant worlds by turning our home star into a gigantic cosmic telescope, allowing us to see the continents, oceans, and even vegetation on exoplanets.

Research conducted by astronomers at the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC), Stanford University, in the United States, shows that precise images of exoplanets could be obtained transforming the Sun into a huge telescope. The new study, recently published in The Astrophysical Journal, suggests that images with a resolution 1,000 times higher than that achieved by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT), which revealed the first images of supermassive black holes, could be achieved.

Revealing the mysteries of exoplanets

We know that there are more than 5,000 exoplanets outside the Solar System, and that some of them, specifically the smaller and rockier ones, could have characteristics similar to Earth. However, it is not so easy to obtain images of these intriguing distant worlds: most of them have been seen only indirectly, from their shadows as they cross in front of the stars they orbit.

The few direct images that have been obtained, that is, using the light that emanates from the planets themselves, show us tiny monochrome dots, even using the best current telescopes. Furthermore, all of those directly imaged worlds are among the brightest, largest, and least Earth-like exoplanets.

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Now the new research, by Alexander Madurowicz and Bruce Macintosh, indicates that in the future it may be possible to obtain images that reveal the features of remote Earth-like worlds orbiting an alien star. According to an article published in Scientific American, the photographs would be so detailed that they would allow us to appreciate, from sidereal distances, the continents, the oceans and even the vegetation that these exoplanets.

The Sun as a gravitational lens

According to an article published on the website of the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology (KIPAC) and signed by one of the study’s authors, the feat would be possible thanks to the Sun and the phenomenon known as gravitational lens, which forms when light from distant, bright objects bends around a massive object, such as a galaxy or large planet, between the emitting and receiving object. Consequently, stars and other massive objects act as natural “gravitational lenses,” distorting and amplifying the light from background objects, allowing them to be seen.

Gravitational lensing was predicted by Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and is currently used by astronomers to observe distant bodies. The new research proposes to use the gravitational lensing of the sun, which would act like the lens of a giant projector, creating an image of the target exoplanet. This projection would be huge, about a kilometer in diameter, and very far away, located at a minimum of 550 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

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Multiple images combined

In order to use the image obtained, it would be necessary to build a large sensor one kilometer wide, a clearly unfeasible idea. Instead, US scientists contend that one or more telescopes could move within this gigantic projection and at each location collect light or “parts” of the image. These multiple observations could then be combined to reconstruct a complete image of the exoplanetin a technique similar to that used by the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration to obtain the first images of supermassive black holes.

If this were possible, the “gravitational sun lens” it could produce images with an angular resolution 1,000 times finer than that achieved by the EHT. To give us an idea of ​​its power, we can consider that an ordinary telescope would need to be almost the size of the Sun to obtain images of the same quality.

Scientists conclude that if their theory could be specified, we would be facing the possibility of revealing all the information necessary to Get a deep understanding of exoplanets. From then on, the next big challenge would be to be able to visit them.

Reference

Integral Field Spectroscopy with the Solar Gravitational Lens. Alexander Madurowicz and Bruce Macintosh. The Astrophysical Journal (2022). DOI:https://doi.org/10.3847/1538-4357/ac5e9d

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