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Daniel Apai (left) Nautilus Array Single Lens Image (center) Alex Bixel (right)

The Nautilus Life-Finding Project

While thousands of extra-solar planets have been discovered to date – including many potentially habitable planets with the same size and equilibrium temperature as the Earth – astronomers have so far been unable to rigorously survey their atmospheres for signs of life – such as the presence of oxygen, ozone, or methane. A key limitation is the size of space telescopes: even the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), with its 6.5 meter diameter mirror – the largest and most expensive space telescope ever built for astronomy – will be able to search for biosignatures in only a handful of the closest potentially habitable worlds. To survey hundreds of such planets for evidence of life may require an orders of magnitude increase in the amount of light which space telescopes are able to collect.

Motivated by this challenge, UA Professors Daniel Apai and Tom Milster are developing a concept for a space telescope called “Nautilus” which would maximize light collecting power by using a specially engineered lens instead of a mirror. Nautilus would eschew a mirror in favor of a new type of large, light-weight, and reproducible lens which is currently being developed by Milster’s team at the College of Optical Sciences. Unlike traditional lenses, which are bulky and produce poorer quality images than mirrors, Nautilus’ lenses are precisely engineered to be lightweight while producing images of comparable quality to Hubble’s mirror. And unlike a mirror, a lens is more tolerant to misalignments, which enables a lightweight and less expensive spacecraft to support it. While the lens design is complex, it can be etched into a mold with diamond-tipped tools, allowing further lenses to be affordable and quickly reproduced.

A single Nautilus telescope would boast an 8.5-meter lens with more than twice the light-collecting area of JWST and a lighter, inflatable spacecraft. Yet thanks to its simple design and reproducible lens, Nautilus telescopes could be replicated at low cost and launched in groups of up to fifteen using future launch fairings. The telescopes would observe a star as its planet transits in front of it, allowing astronomers to deduce the composition of the planet’s atmosphere by measuring how much of the star’s spectrum it absorbs. Through this technique, Apai and UA graduate student Alex Bixel estimate that with thirty-five Nautilus telescopes they could survey as many as a thousand potentially habitable planets for evidence of life. If even a fraction of these worlds are inhabited, the Nautilus array would discover dozens of examples of life beyond Earth.

You can read articles about this project HERE and HERE and HERE and HERE.

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