Title text: The New Worlds Mission is already trying to get funding for this, but NASA sponsored their proposal, so it will be hard to catch the telescope people by surprise with it.
Megan and Ponytail are talking about space telescopes in general. Megan says that these telescopes could see exoplanets better by using an occulting disk, in the form of free floating opaque discs, that could block out light from the exoplanets' (or exoplanet's) star thus enabling the telescopes to see the weak light from the planets when the glare of the star has been diminished.
She continues by explaining that the scientists behind the new James Webb Space Telescope, at the time of the comic scheduled to launch in 2018, thought about including such a disk, but that it was cut for budget reasons. Ponytail asks if it has to be their own disk, and then she decides to kickstart a fund raiser in order to build a so called starshade (hence the title. See more about the starshade below). Megan asks her to at least warn the scientist if she makes the shade, but just replies "whatever". Ponytail is referring to the crowdfunding site Kickstarter, but there is no actual project for a Starshade for Webb (or for New Worlds Mission, see title text explanation).
The final panel shows the NASA control center in 2018 when the Webb telescope is being calibrated. It turns out that Ponytail succeeded and did indeed not warn the scientists. Cueball is surprised by the disc -- and possibly by what the disc might have printed on it, given its crowdfunded origins -- but Hairbun immediately notices exoplanets, implying that Ponytail's plan worked.
Note that the telescope has partners from 20 countries and is being operated not only by NASA but also by European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).
The best known space telescope is the Hubble Space Telescope which was launched back in 1990. The Webb telescope is seen as a successor instrument to Hubble and, because its instruments are mainly working in the infrared region of the electromagnetic spectrum, also as a successor to Spitzer Space Telescope launched in 2003. Apart from better instruments and being larger, another improvement over Hubble is that it will be located near the L2 Earth–Sun lagrangian point, and thus it's not in orbit around Earth. This means that it can keep focusing on a specific point for longer times, where Hubble can only see a given point for about half an hour before moving behind Earth again. When operating in the infrared range as the Webb telescope does (from middle infrared to red and orange visible light) it is important to be outside the atmosphere (or at least on very high mountains). Another important feature is to keep the temperature constant and very cool. Since the telescope is always in the light of the sun, this can only be achieved by using a large sunshield protection.
In the title text the New Worlds Mission is mentioned. The mission is to find new worlds = exoplanets, by applying a starshade to block the light of distant stars, so that the planets around the stars become visible. All discovered exoplanets so far have been found indirectly and not by direct visual confirmation. (Starshade points to this mission when searching for it on Wikipedia.) The title text explains that NASA actually sponsored this mission's proposal to build a starshade for the Webb telescope. Thus the title text concludes that the surprise shown in the comic is not likely to occur in real life. A case of simplified language is used at the end when the scientist are called telescope people. NASA stopped this sponsoring in 2008, and New Worlds Mission has been looking for additional financing since 2010.
It seems clear that Randall would like to point attention to the New Worlds Mission, maybe hoping for increased funding for the project so a starshade could be a reality already for the Webb telescope. That Randall is interested in exoplanets has been demonstrated many times in xkcd.
Note that two of the Webb telescopes instruments, the NIRCam and the MIRI, feature starlight-blocking coronagraphs for observation of faint targets such as exoplanets very close to bright stars. So the telescope has measures to improve the sighting of these planets. But Randall (and New Worlds Mission) believes that the starshade would greatly improve the ability to discover and investigate these faint objects.
The starshade, proposed by New Worlds Mission, is a spacecraft designed to work in tandem with space telescopes, not necessarily the Webb telescope. It is a large occulter that should block a stars light. One difficulty with this concept is that light incoming from the target star would diffract around the disc and constructively interfere along the central axis. Thus the starlight would still be easily visible, making planet detection impossible. In order to avoid this effect the starshade is a proposed sunflower-shaped coronagraph disc. The "petals" of the "sunflower" shape are designed to eliminate this diffraction making exoplanet observation possible. The starshade would fly 72,000 km (45,000 mi) in front of a space telescope (between the telescope and a target star) in order to work. There is a great video demonstrating the starshade on its Wikipedia page.
The idea of an occulting telescope was used in 975: Occulting Telescope, where it turns out the purpose is to just block all star light not to see exoplanets.
- [Megan and Ponytail are walking.]
- Megan: Space telescopes could see exoplanets better if they used free-floating opaque discs to block the stars' glare.
- [They stop walking in this zoom in on their heads. Ponytail has turned towards Megan.]
- Megan: They thought about including one with the Webb telescope, but cut it to save money.
- Ponytail: Well... does it have to be their disc?
- [In this frame-less panel Megan is left standing as Ponytail turns and walks away.]
- Megan: What do you mean?
- Ponytail: Like, if I Kickstart a starshade for them?
- Megan: Um. Would you at least warn them?
- Ponytail: Eh. Whatever.
- [Cueball and Hairbun, both wearing headsets, are sitting on one legged stools on either side of a slim desk with two computers screens on top of it. Each are looking at their own screens while typing on a keyboard in front of them. Hairbun is pointing at her screen. A small frame is overlaid on the top of the panels frame with a caption:]
- NASA, 2018:
- Cueball: Initiating Webb calibrat-
- Cueball: Aaaaa! What the hell is that!?
- Hairbun: Hey, look, exoplanets!
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