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UMass Lowell teams up with NASA to launch space telescope, helping in search for new planets

PICTURE-C works to identify as-yet unseen planets and space debris during its latest mission.

Students and faculty at the University of Massachusetts Lowell helped NASA design and launch a 1,500-pound space telescope that blocks light so that objects close to stars can be studied, inching researchers closer to discovering new planets, the university said Wednesday.

On Sept. 28, NASA launched the telescope, dubbed “PICTURE-C,” which was designed by professors, researchers, and a doctoral student from the Lowell Center for Space and Technology, the university said.

It was the telescope’s second launch, the first coming in 2019. It returned to Earth about 14 hours later, physics professor and center director Supriya Chakrabarti said by e-mail.


“PICTURE-C is enabling us to gain a better understanding of the processes and dynamics that formed our own solar system,” Chakrabarti said.

Chakrabarti led the research team that created the 1,500-pound, 14-foot wide by 3-foot device, which was funded by a $5.6 million, five-year NASA grant, the university said. It’s designed to take pictures of faint dust and debris using a coronagraph instrument — an attachment used to block out a star’s direct light.

“To take a picture of a Jupiter-like planet around a sun-like star in visible light, one needs to have a dark hole whose average brightness is about a billion times dimmer than the star’s,” Chakrabarti said.

The telescope’s field of vision is two arc-seconds, or 0.0005556 degrees, and researchers make fine adjustments to focus the view, according to the center’s website.

“Dust had been detected around [a star called] Vega, so it’s thought to have a very big and bright debris disk close to it,” assistant research professor Christopher Mendillo said in a statement. “It’s never been imaged directly in visible light.”

Mendillo said another bright star called Epsilon Eridani might have an exoplanet the size of Jupiter orbiting it but no one has seen it yet. This year, NASA awarded Mendillo a $7 million grant to enhance and refine the telescope in a program called “PICTURE-D.”


PICTURE-C was lifted to the stratosphere by an immense NASA balloon made of polyethylene film and filled with helium, the same gas used to fill party balloons.Christopher Mendillo

“I am confident that with these technologies proven and the next round of improvements being readied for their next flights, we should be able to take the first picture of an exo-Jupiter [a planet with mass similar to our solar system’s Jupiter, but orbiting another star] in about a decade,” Chakrabarti said.

Bailey Allen can be reached at bailey.allen@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @baileyaallen.