One proposed method for finding terrestrial planets around nearby stars is to use two spacecraft: a telescope and a specially shaped occulter that is specifically designed to prevent all but a tiny fraction of the starlight from diffracting into the telescope. As the cost and observing cadence for such a mission will be driven largely by the separation between the two spacecraft, it is critically important to design an occulter that can meet the observing goals while flying as close to the telescope as possible. In this paper, we explore this tradeoff between separation and occulter diameter. More specifically, we present a method for designing the shape of the outer edge of an occulter that is as small as possible and gives a shadow that is deep enough and large enough for a 4 m telescope to survey the habitable zones of many stars for Earth-like planets. In particular, we show that in order for a 4 m telescope to detect in broadband visible light a planet 0.06″ from a star shining 1010 times more brightly than the planet requires a specially shaped occulter 50 m in diameter positioned about 72,000 km in front of the telescope.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Astronomy and Astrophysics
- Space and Planetary Science
- Instrumentation: high angular resolution
- Planetary systems