NASA Enlists GrabCAD Community to Design Solar Shade

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NASA is seeking the public’s help to develop a solar shade for astronomers to better study Earth-like planets outside of our solar system. If you’re a member of the GrabCAD community and can design the sunshade that works, first prize will bank you $7,000.

Viewing Exoplanets

NASA has long been interested in studying Earth-like planets (exoplanets) to gain key insights into life itself. If we can understand how those planets developed and if they are habitable, then we can better understand how life evolved on Earth and in our universe as a whole. However, studying these planets has been difficult, and the few insights we have gathered have only come through indirect measurements.

Currently, our technology cannot view exoplanets directly because most of the earth-like planets revolve around their host star. The reflected light from the planet, which gives us insight into atmospheric conditions and other signs of life, is “drowned out” by the brighter light source. If researchers can create a method to block out the rays that are interfering, then it might help scientists glean insights they desperately want.

One idea the teams at NASA keep returning to to alleviate this problem is a solar shade. This concept would see a massive umbrella orbit in just the right way to block the light from the host star and allow astronomers to measure the Earth-like planets directly. While the idea has been a moonshot, NASA wanted to see if it could transform it into a reality with a public competition to help to design the shade.

Crowdsourcing a Star Shade

This competition is hosted on Stratasys’s GrabCAD and is part of NASA’s early-stage study of a hybrid observatory with Earth-based telescopes and space-based solar shades. These hybrid observatories would convert the best telescopes on earth into extraordinary planet finders. Moreover, if this venture proves successful, it could help answer one of the biggest scientific questions still unanswered: are we alone in the universe?

Picture of a solar-shade in front of a telescope. Image courtesy of NASA.

Even the upper brass at NASA is excited about the public’s involvement in the development of the Hybrid Observatory for Earth-like Exoplanets (HOEE). Dr. John Mather, senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope said, “The hybrid observatory might help us answer some of the most pressing questions about extraterrestrial life. Observing many systems this way would help answer the question of why configurations like our own are rare and why none is quite like home. It is truly exciting that the public can be part of this revolutionary effort. I can’t wait to see what ideas they bring to the table.”

Given the increased role of 3D printing in space applications, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the technology play a role in this project. On the extreme end, we can imagine a company like Redwire actually 3D printing such a structure in space for deployment through its Archinaut concept. More realistically, additive manufacturing has been shown to be useful for lightweighting parts, which is key to reducing the cargo load of a rocket, while also improving functional properties for satellites and other spacecraft. At the very least, we can imagine 3D printed brackets and connectors for a star shade design.

If you want your chance at earning $7,000 be sure to check out GrabCAD’s page on the competition and submit your proposal by August 22nd, 2022 to be entered to win.

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