By Jan Kolmas February 4, 2016
On January 19th, the Space Rendezvous Lab (SLAB) hosted an all-day workshop at Stanford to discuss a novel astronomy mission concept, the so-called Miniaturized Distributed Occulter/Telescope (mDOT), with experts in the field.
Among methods to directly image extrasolar planets, the occulter/telescope technology holds great promise. The basic idea is to block the light from the parent star through an occulter spacecraft, and take photographs of the star’s vicinity through a telescope which flies in the narrow deep shadow casted by the occulter. However, proposed missions using this concept such as the New Worlds Observer (NWO) or Exo-S (NASA) are exceptionally large with occulter diameters of tens of meters and inter-spacecraft separations of tens of megameters, requiring deployment in deep space and costing billions of dollars. This exorbitant cost and complexity motivated a fundamental question at Stanford in January 2015: “How small and how cheap could an occulter/telescope be while still retaining relevant scientific and technological value?”
After more than one year, breakthrough analyses conducted mainly by Aero/Astro students, and four publications, SLAB provided the answer to this question: mDOT. This mission concept consists of a microsatellite which carries a starshade of only 1 meter in radius, and a nanosatellite carrying a tiny 10 centimeter aperture telescope, flying in formation in Earth orbit. By leveraging SLAB’s expertise and know-how in Earth-bound formation-flying, mDOT can achieve two main objectives: 1) low-cost technology demonstration to reduce the risks associated with flagship missions, and 2) directly image and characterize exozodiacal dust and large bright exoplanets of scientific interest.
Thrilled by the new idea and its feasibility study, twenty people joined the workshop at Stanford to discuss the scientific motivation, the preliminary concept, concurrent studies on various aspects of the mission, and the next steps. The workshop attracted high-profile attendees from various academic, governmental and commercial entities, namely NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), the University of Colorado at Boulder, Northrop Grumman, Tyvak and Google/Skybox.
The hosts, Prof. Simone D’Amico and Prof. Bruce Macintosh, agreed that the workshop was successful in motivating fruitful discussions and drafting a way forward. The attendees were so impressed with the quality of student work, that both the JPL’s Team-X and the GSFC’s Integrated Design Center are now considering mDOT for a more detailed system design and cost assessment at their concurrent engineering facilities.