ASU creates shoe box-sized spacecraft to study planets

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(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
(Source: 3TV/CBS 5) (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)

ASU researchers are building a spacecraft the size and shape of a shoebox to learn more about potentially habitable planets beyond our solar system.

The small NASA-funded spacecraft is called the Star-Planet Activity Research CubeSat, or SPARCS.

"It's about the size of your family-sized Cheerios box at home," said Evegnya Shkolnik, ASU assistant professor of astrophysics. "Pretty small. You could carry it around. It's only about 25 pounds."

SPARCS may be small, but it will have a big mission.

It will carry a telescope into Earth's orbit in 2021 to study small stars called red dwarfs.

"These are the most common stars in our galaxies; they're the most likely to host a habitable zone planet," said Joe Llama, an astronomer at Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory. "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. 

"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?" said Shkolnik.

Shkolnik says astronomers estimate our galaxy has 40 billion rocky planets in habitable zones.n

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