NASA has given $5.6 million to the University of Massachusetts Lowell to build and test an imaging device to detect planets beyond our solar system that are capable of supporting life, officials said.
The grant, the first of its size, will be going to the university’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology. The center focuses on studying atmospheres and ionospheres of Earth and the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy, and the cosmos, officials said.
The apparatus, which is called a planetary imaging concept testbed using a recoverable experiment — coronagraph, or PICTURE-C, has a special optical-imaging system in its telescope that blocks light from stars to see other objects in space.
“PICTURE-C will enable us to image and characterize the disk of dust, asteroids, planets, and other debris orbiting the stars and gain a better understanding of the processes and dynamics that formed our solar system,” Supriya Chakrabarti, a UMass Lowell physics professor and the director of the center, said in a statement.
According to the university, the device will be launched twice from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, N.M., in 2017 and 2019.
The test targets, five stars, vary in brightness, age, distance, and spectral type.
The stars are Alpha Lyrae (Vega), Sigma Draconis, Epsilon Eridani, Alpha Aquilae (Altair), and Tau Ceti, officials said.
The telescope is 24 inches in diameter and will be housed in a gondola 6½ by 7½ by 11 feet. It weights about a ton, officials said, and can be compared to a small car.
“The center aims to train the next generation of scientists and engineers through hands-on involvement in all phases of the mission, from instrument development to data analysis,” Chakrabarti said.
“We will also mentor and train early career professionals in space astronomy and engineering and promote undergraduate participation in space and technology research.”
PICTURE-C will be carried by a giant helium balloon up about 120,000 feet, then it will collect data for six to 10 hours, Chakrabarti said.
To keep the device balanced it will be kept on course by another platform, which Chakrabarti compared to the Hubble Space Telescope.
At the end of the two missions, the ground controllers will send a command to release the balloon from the payload, which will allow the device to fall back to earth safely with the help of a parachute.
“The PICTURE-C sounding rocket and future stratospheric balloon are great examples of how NASA’s suborbital program develops and tests the technologies that we will need in our future spacecraft,” Michael Garcia, NASA headquarters program officer for the project, said in a statement.
“The development of these particular technologies is necessary on the way to our ultimate goal of discovering an Earth 2.0.”