Edwin L. Aguirre
Before NASA’s Kepler mission was launched in 2009, nobody knew for sure if Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life were common across the universe. Since then, Kepler has discovered thousands of small, rocky planets orbiting Sun-like stars, some of which are located within the “habitable zone,” where water could exist in liquid form on the planet’s surface. And liquid water is a key ingredient in the search for terrestrial life as we know it.
Thanks to recent technological breakthroughs in exoplanet research, scientists now have the capability to take the first direct picture of an alien Earth-like planet beyond our solar system.
Project Blue, a consortium of non-governmental, non-profit space and research institutions, has embarked on an ambitious quest to design, build and launch by 2020 a small, lightweight, privately funded space telescope to detect planets around our nearest stellar neighbor called Alpha Centauri.
Project Blue’s collaborators include the BoldlyGo Institute, Mission Centaur, the SETI Institute and UMass Lowell, together with an advisory committee of astronomers from Yale University, Penn State University, the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and the University of Victoria in Canada.
The team is led by Jon Morse, former NASA director of astrophysics and the CEO of the BoldlyGo Institute, while physics Prof. Supriya Chakrabarti is the principal investigator for UMass Lowell. Chakrabarti, who directs the university’s Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology, is providing technical expertise in the design and fabrication of the telescope. He has more than 20 years of experience launching space experiments aboard sounding rockets, and have successfully launched over 20 of them.
Project Blue has been generating intense media interest, and the mission was featured recently in Popular Science, Scientific American, Space.com, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian and Gizmodo, to name a few.
Kickstarting the Mission’s Funding
The project is being funded by contributions from the space industry, government agencies, academia and the general public. On Nov. 15, the organization launched an initial Kickstarter goal of $1 million to lay the groundwork for the mission through preliminary analysis, design and simulations.
“If we reach $2 million, it will allow us to test the coronagraph. And if we hit $4 million, we’ll be able to complete the telescope design, begin manufacturing key telescope components and support student and university involvement in mission operations,” says Chakrabarti. “This project wouldn’t be possible without the public’s support.”
The final cost of the mission is estimated to be under $50 million, with an initial target of $25 million. This is a fraction of the cost of large NASA astrophysics missions like Kepler, which costs $600 million, or the James Webb Space Telescope, estimated at nearly $9 billion.
A Pale Blue Dot
Alpha Centauri, located in the southern constellation of Centaurus, lies a mere 4.37 light years from Earth. (A light year is the distance light travels in one year, or about six trillion miles.) The star is actually a binary system, containing not just one but two stars similar to our Sun designated as Alpha Centauri A and B. The star system was selected as the mission’s target because of its close proximity. It also gives scientists two chances of finding Earth-like planets in either of the stars’ habitable zones.
To aid in the search, Project Blue’s planned telescope will feature a primary mirror measuring 20 inches in diameter. The telescope is small enough to fit on a coffee table, but sensitive enough to pick up a tiny planet over a billion times dimmer than its parent star — from more than four light years away. This is equivalent to seeing a tiny firefly buzzing close to a very bright lighthouse from 10 miles away.
To accomplish this, the telescope will be launched into orbit around Earth, where it will observe Alpha Centauri for up to two years, free from the distorting effects of our planet’s turbulent atmosphere.
At the heart of the telescope will be a coronagraph designed by UMass Lowell researchers that will “mask,” or block out, the overwhelmingly bright light from Alpha Centauri so that faint planets very close to the star system, which otherwise would be hidden in A and B’s glare, can be investigated in great detail. If the telescope spots a “pale blue dot” — as the late astronomer Carl Sagan once described our home planet Earth as viewed from space — this could indicate the presence of liquid oceans or substantial atmosphere in the alien planet and the potential to support life.
“This would be our very first view of another world like our own,” says Chakrabarti. “And it would change forever our understanding of our place in the universe.”