The CU-Boulder planetary proposal, called the New Worlds Observer, was one of 19 proposals for major new observatories in the coming decade selected for further study. According to Professor Webster Cash, chief scientist on the effort, "The New Worlds Observer proposal features a giant, daisy-shaped plastic "starshade" to block starlight and allow a telescope to image the faint light from distant planets circling other stars." "Astronomers will, for the first time, be able to identify planetary features like oceans, continents, polar caps and cloud banks and even detect biomarkers like methane, oxygen and water if they exist," he added.
The 4-meter telescope planned for the project will be larger and more powerful than the 2.4-meter mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing researchers to record the light from rocky planets tens of trillions of miles away.
"The telescope and its 50-yard-diameter starshade would launch into an orbit roughly 1 million miles from Earth, with the parasol unfurling and moving via thrusters into the lines of sight of nearby stars thought to harbor planets," said Cash.
According to Cash, "New World Observer is a clean win for us because we got full funding and high ratings from NASA." "This puts us on firm footing to compete with the other mission concepts for the right to build the next major observatory in space," he said.
The estimated cost to design and build the New Worlds Observer mission would be roughly 3.3 billion dollars.