The flower you see in this animation isn't NASA’s attempt to celebrate the coming of spring. It’s actually the latest design in a cutting-edge effort to take pictures of planets orbiting stars far from the sun.
Astronomers have been indirectly detecting exoplanets for more than 15 years, but actually taking a picture of one has proven an immensely difficult task. Picking out the dim light of a planet from a star billions of times brighter is akin to finding a needle in a cosmic haystack, especially when the planet in question is a small, rocky world similar to Earth. In order to achieve this feat, researchers are developing techniques to block out the starlight while preserving the light emitted by the planet. This is called starlight suppression.
It’s a task that NASA’s flower-shaped starshade is designed to make easier. Working in conjunction with a space-based telescope, the starshade is able to position itself precisely between the telescope and the star that’s being observed, and can block the starlight before it even reaches the telescope’s mirrors.
With the starlight suppressed, light coming from exoplanets orbiting the star would be visible. Using this technology, astronomers would be able to take actual pictures of exoplanets – images that could provide clues as to whether such worlds could support life as we know it.
Source and further reading:http://planetquest.jpl.nasa.gov/video/15
Video source:NASA | Flower Power Starshade Unfurls in Space [HD]