You see the problem is that we just don’t have the means of clearly imaging planets that are potentially many light years away.
However an ambitious plan by NASA could change all that.
The researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have proposed a bold new plan to turn our Sun into a giant magnifying glass.
They would be able to do this by taking advantage of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing.
Gravitational lensing occurs when the light from a distant object is distorted and bent around a massive object that’s blocking the view, such as a nearby galaxy.
This is because huge objects like galaxies have the ability to actually bend spacetime itself, forcing the light to pass around them rather than through them.
The reason the images are distorted however is because we’re not within the right focal range and indeed it would be almost impossible for us to reach that place from Earth.
Just like a galaxy, the Sun is massive enough that it too can gravitationally lens light around it, however unlike a galaxy it’s much much closer to us.
Now stick with us here because this is where it gets really cool. What the researchers are proposing is to send a telescope to a region called the Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL) Focus.
Within this region the Sun focuses the faint light it bends, allowing a telescope to theoretically take a picture of a planet with a resolution of 1000x1000 pixels.
At that kind of resolution, researchers would be able to make out even small details on the planet’s surface such as geographical features, environmental conditions, atmosphere and more.
“Such a possibility is truly unique and merits a detailed study in the context of a realistic mission” say the researchers.
Of course there are some hurdles that we’ll need to overcome. For starters we’ll need to make use of a powerful engine that hasn’t been properly tested yet.
You see the region that we’ll need to send the telescope to is further even than the Voyager 2 spacecraft.
Then there’s the mission length. Even if we use new rocket technologies the likelihood is that it would take the spacecraft 50 years to reach its destination. That’s an awfully long time for things to go wrong.