A Thousand Earths: A Very Large Aperture, Ultralight Space Telescope Array for Atmospheric Biosignature Surveys

Dániel Apai, Tom D. Milster, Dae Wook Kim, Alex Bixel, Glenn Schneider, Ronguang Liang, Jonathan Arenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


An outstanding, multidisciplinary goal of modern science is the study of the diversity of potentially Earth-like planets and the search for life in them. This goal requires a bold new generation of space telescopes, but even the most ambitious designs yet hope to characterize several dozen potentially habitable planets. Such a sample may be too small to truly understand the complexity of exo-earths. We describe here a notional concept for a novel space observatory designed to characterize 1000 transiting exo-earth candidates. The Nautilus concept is based on an array of inflatable spacecraft carrying very large diameter (8.5 m), very low weight, multiorder diffractive optical elements (MODE lenses) as light-collecting elements. The mirrors typical to current space telescopes are replaced by MODE lenses with a 10 times lighter areal density that are 100 times less sensitive to misalignments, enabling lightweight structure. MODE lenses can be cost-effectively replicated through molding. The Nautilus mission concept has a potential to greatly reduce fabrication and launch costs and mission risks compared to the current space telescope paradigm through replicated components and identical, lightweight unit telescopes. Nautilus is designed to survey transiting exo-earths for biosignatures up to a distance of 300 pc, enabling a rigorous statistical exploration of the frequency and properties of life-bearing planets and the diversity of exo-earths.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number83
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2019


  • astrobiology
  • instrumentation: miscellaneous
  • planets and satellites: atmospheres
  • planets and satellites: terrestrial planets
  • telescopes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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