Arizona-built Space Telescope Will Study Distant Solar Systems

Mar 29, 2018

Arizona astronomers are building a spacecraft the size and shape of a shoebox to learn more about potentially habitable planets beyond our solar system. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports.

Artist's concept of three planets around a red dwarf star.
Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

The NASA-funded spacecraft is called the Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat, or SPARCS. It will carry a telescope into Earth’s orbit in 2021 to study small stars called red dwarfs.

Joe Llama, astronomer at Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory, says, "These are the most common stars in our galaxies; they’re the most likely to host a habitable zone planet. That’s a planet that’s in the right temperature range where liquid water can exist on the surface. But to classify a planet as habitable, we need to understand what the atmosphere of the planet is like."

Atmospheres can be destroyed by bursts of ultraviolet radiation from red dwarfs. SPARCS will find out how often they send out these damaging flares. It will look at stars with known planets as well as young stars that might still have planets forming.  

Evgenya Shkolnik, astrophysicist at Arizona State University, is the lead investigator. She says, "We’re interested in studying these planets because it will give us a piece of the puzzle to the biggest question that much of society asks itself: and that is, are we alone?"

Shkolnik says astronomers estimate our galaxy has 40 billion rocky planets in habitable zones. She adds, new technology makes it possible to look at big questions with tiny spacecraft.