LOWELL, Mass. – NASA has awarded UMass Lowell researchers $5.6 million toward their work to build and test an imaging device that will be able to detect planets beyond the solar system that are capable of supporting life.

The device is equipped with a specialized optical-imaging system on a telescope designed to block direct light from stars so that objects close to them – such as planets, asteroids and interplanetary dust – that would otherwise be hidden by glare can be studied. The 24-inch-diameter telescope will be housed in a gondola measuring approximately 6.5 feet by 7.5 feet by 11 feet. When completed, the entire device will weigh an estimated 2,000 pounds, comparable to a small car.

The instrument is scheduled to launch from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner, N.M., for two missions, one in 2017 and the other in 2019. Five stars that represent a range of brightness, ages, distances and spectral types have been selected as the missions’ test targets. They are Alpha Lyrae (Vega), Sigma Draconis, Epsilon Eridani, Alpha Aquilae (Altair) and Tau Ceti.

The UMass Lowell researchers have named the apparatus the Planetary Imaging Concept Testbed Using a Recoverable Experiment – Coronagraph, or PICTURE C.

“PICTURE-C will enable us to image and characterize the disk of dust, asteroids, planets and other debris orbiting the stars and gain a better understanding of the processes and dynamics that formed our solar system,” said Supriya Chakrabarti, a UMass Lowell physics professor who is the director of the university’s new Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology.

The NASA grant is the first major funding for the center, whose researchers study the atmospheres and ionospheres of Earth and the solar system, the Milky Way galaxy and the cosmos.

“The center aims to train the next generation of scientists and engineers through hands-on involvement in all phases of the mission, from instrument development to data analysis,” Chakrabarti said. “We will also mentor and train early career professionals in space astronomy and engineering and promote undergraduate participation in space and technology research.”

Other UMass Lowell members of the PICTURE-C team include Newton resident Timothy Cook, an assistant professor of physics who is leading the project with Chakrabarti; mechanical engineer Jason Martel of Fitchburg; post-doctoral associates Susanna Finn of Somerville and Christopher Mendillo of Brighton; and graduate student Kuravi Hewawasam of Lowell.

In order to capture quality images once the device is airborne, it will be carried aloft by a giant helium balloon to altitudes of about 120,000 feet where it will be above 99.9 percent of the atmosphere that could distort or blur the images. The balloon will enable the instrument to collect data for six to 10 hours, depending on a variety of factors, including wind and other weather conditions, according to Chakrabarti. PICTURE-C’s 2017 mission will be the center’s first balloon flight.

While on its way to the edge of the atmosphere, PICTURE-C will be kept on course by a special Gimbal platform in the balloon’s gondola that can compensate for any unwanted movements and a fine-pointing, optical-control system. The gondola, called Wallops Arc Second Pointer (WASP), was developed and flight-proven by Wallops Flight Facility of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The device’s optical-control system, which determines where in space the instrument is looking, was designed by Mendillo and Cook, Chakrabarti said.

“This fine-pointing system can provide the coronagraph an accuracy of better than 5 milliarcseconds, which is comparable to that of the Hubble Space Telescope,” Chakrabarti said. Arcseconds measure the apparent angle between two objects in space, with one arcsecond measuring 1/3600 of one degree. A milliarcsecond is one 1,000th of an arcsecond.

At the end of each mission, ground controllers will send a command to release the balloon from the payload, which will then fall to the ground, aided by a parachute that would deploy to ensure its safe landing.

“The PICTURE-C sounding rocket and future stratospheric balloon are great examples of how NASA’s suborbital program develops and tests the technologies that we will need in our future spacecraft,” said Michael Gracia, NASA headquarters program officer for the project. “The development of these particular technologies is necessary on the way to our ultimate goal of discovering an Earth 2.0.”

Other PICTURE-C project collaborators include researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Goddard Space Flight Center, the Space Telescope Science Institute, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California Institute of Technology and the University of California Santa Barbara.