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Telescope for Exoplanetary Research Launches on Kickstarter

13 September 2017

The ExoLife Finder -- aka, ELF -- is the world’s first telescope that is capable of imaging oceans, continents, and life on nearby exoplanets. ELF is an affordable large-scale telescope for exoplanetary research. ELF is specialized to see exoplanets up to 120 trillion miles, or 24 light years, away from Earth. ELF detects the energy signature of life or life’s chemical fingerprints in the atmosphere from water, oxygen, methane and ozone or on the surface from photosynthetic bio pigments.

This is what the ELF will look like when it is completed (Kickstarter)This is what the ELF will look like when it is completed (Kickstarter)

The telescope’s first target will be Proxima B. When ELF is completed, researchers learn if there is life on the nearest exoplanet. They will also find if there are Earth-like planets around Alpha Centauri A and B and other nearby stars within a few dozen light years from Sun. This will prove if Earth has any neighbors in space, big or small.

Achieving this research requires a design that allows for cost reduction and increases in the targeted sensitivity by a factor of 10x. This makes ELF the most realistic plan in order to find and characterize life on nearby exoplanets.

The PLANETS Telescope is currently being built atop Haleakala on Maui. Building and operating PLANETS is an essential step in the development of the ExoLife Finder Telescope. The funding for PLANETS was received from a Kickstarter in 2016. With the PLANETS Telescope underway, the team needs to develop mirror technology with ELF.

ELF is a circular array of sixteen 5-meter mirrors and uses the thin “printed-mirror” technology that finds life signatures depends on. The total diameter is about 25 meters and it is large enough to begin a dedicated program of imaging dozens of exoplanets within 25 light years of Earth and enables a new field of exoplanetary and exolife research.

The design of ELF is unique compared to other large-scale telescopes. In order to reduce mass and weight of the telescope, a structural principle called tensegrity was used. Tensegrity utilizes tension and compression. It is often used in bridge designs. Each ELF mirror has a dedicated secondary mirror and will be “off-axis.” Off-axis telescopes are often used in radio dish receivers that can now be used for optics thanks to modern fabrication technology. They reduce the amount of scattered light that might interfere with the photons we get from the exoplanets.The system must be sensitive because exoplanets are extremely faint.

Typical telescope mirrors are usually many centimeters thick and can take a while to polish. The ELF teams have been developing a new way to make large telescope mirrors thin, inexpensive and quickly polished. They use a process called fire-polishing, which is a faster process and makes the class incredibly smooth. They combined this method with electronic “muscle” electroactive polymers that create mirrors that aren’t abrasively polished. This creates smoother and lighter-weight than the traditional telescope mirrors.

The team is miniaturizing the actuators that perfect the paraboloidal mirror shape that is needed to separate the light of exoplanet from a star. The electroactive polymers, aka EAP, are strong synthetic muscles. They 3D print 1,000’s of polymers on the back of a mirror that are very small and accurate adjustments to the mirror. This will yield optical-quality off-axis paraboloids and maintain their shape as the telescope environment changes.

The team created a unique algorithm that will be able to image the exoplanets and see things like continents, oceans and life. The telescope will allow us to see atmosphere’s molecules like water, oxygen, methane, carbon dioxide and ozone.

The ExoLife Finder currently has a live Kickstarter. They have $12,665 of their $35,000 goal and it ends on October 8th, 2017.

To contact the author of this article, email Siobhan.Treacy@ieeeglobalspec.com


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