Shape-Changing Mirrors Could Help Us Photograph Distant Planets
The planet Proxima-b is camera shy. In fairness, most exoplanets are - it's hardly easy to photograph any planet within our own solar system, but getting a clear picture of planets that orbit other stars is close to impossible.
There's simply too much light pollution; the nearby Alpha Centauri solar system, for example, contains three stars which are constantly bathing its planets in light. Therefore, trying to get a clear picture of Proxima-b, a planet that's very much like our own, is incredibly difficult. With so much light bouncing around, getting a quality image is like trying to photograph a bird as it passes in front of our sun, or taking a screenshot from a scene in a J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie - the image we're looking to capture is completely obscured by lens flares and light seeping in from all corners.
Scientists are eager to find ways to take better photos of distant planets, particularly Promixa-b, which could (if we're very lucky) play host to some form of alien life. In order to do so, they need to find a way to isolate the planet, and counter balance all of the light that's seeping in from various other stars.
The solution, some astonomers hope, lies in something called multi-star wavefront control. This would involve a system of mirrors that can bend and twist in order to distort light. Alongside computers, this could be done to bounce around light from different sources that are affecting Proxima-b and other planets, so that we're able to isolate the planet itself without interference from various light sources.
The solution would not be a glorious full-color high definition photo. Instead, we'd get a few points of light that help us to see Proxima-b a little more clearly, and give us a better idea of the planet's surface.
But so far, photos of distant planets have been taken using coronagraphy, a form of photography that was pioneered almost a century ago in order to help take accurate pictures of the sun. This technology is far from perfect, as it typically shows everything but the object we're trying to look at, blocking out the star's direct light to show the light reflecting off an exoplanet.
This is great for helping us to understand the effects of distant stars on their surroundings, but less great considering that all we want to do is marvel at Promixa-b's beautiful surface in the same way that we drool over Jupiter or Saturn.
Using these specialized mirrors with multi-star wavefront control wouldn't be much, but it would be something. We'd gain a slightly better look at distant exoplanets than we're now capable of getting, and that makes it worthwhile as we try to figure out how better to take a look at the worlds orbiting the Alpha Centauri stars.
Proxima-b won't be getting a close-up any time soon, but if we're lucky, we might at least be able to see a little of what it looks like without such bright cosmic floodlights ruining every photo we take.