Tuesday, October 11, 2016
The Push to Photograph Earth-Like Planet Begins With Launch of Project Blue
Project Blue will work to fund, build and launch a compact exoplanet imaging telescope aimed at Alpha Centauri -- the closest star system to Earth -- to determine whether Earth-like planets exist around it and if so, to capture a direct "pale blue dot" image. While NASA's Kepler mission has shown that terrestrial-sized planets are common in our galaxy, no one has yet been able to take a picture of one as small as Earth, in an orbit that could potentially sustain life. Project Blue would be the first. The mission will take about three years to construct and will conduct an intensive two-year study once in orbit.
"Now is the time to embark on this mission. Scientific imperative and technological advancements have converged to a point where we can finally take a serious look at our closest neighbor, Alpha Centauri," said Jon Morse, CEO of BoldlyGo Institute. "Does it contain rocky planets? Do they have oceans and atmospheres? Could they conceivably support life? We launched Project Blue because we believe such a discovery would profoundly impact humankind's understanding of the universe and spur a new wave of excitement in science and astronomy."
Recent developments, including the extraordinary success of the Kepler mission and advances in optics and imaging technologies, have laid the groundwork for Project Blue. Kepler has discovered over 2300 confirmed exoplanets through indirect observation techniques, many of which scientists believe could have Earth-like characteristics. Imaging one directly is an achievement that would open a new path to detecting and characterizing possible life-sustaining worlds around nearby stars.
An Earth-like planet is characterized as 0.5 to 1.5 times the size of Earth and orbiting within the host star's "habitable zone," where the temperature could allow liquid water to exist on the planet's surface. Such a planet with oceans and an atmosphere similar to Earth, unless obscured by clouds, could appear blue to the human eye.
Project Blue's customized telescope will be mounted on an optimized commercial spacecraft and specifically focus on Alpha Centauri, allowing it to maintain modest size and cost compared to larger astrophysics missions. The spacecraft will conduct its study of the Alpha Centauri system from a special north-south, low-Earth orbit that provides the stable conditions necessary for such precise measurements.
Despite Alpha Centauri's proximity, there is currently no telescope with high enough contrast capability to observe orbiting planets directly; detecting an Earth-sized planet next to its host star has been compared to detecting a firefly next to a lighthouse from ten miles away. Additionally, Alpha Centauri's binary structure makes it a particularly challenging target. Since the system's two stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, appear so close together in the night sky, observation requires a special approach to suppress both light sources to see any orbiting planets.
"What makes the Alpha Centauri system so attractive is that each of the two stars is a lot like our own sun, which gives us two chances to find planets in either of their habitable zones," said Supriya Chakrabarti, professor in the Department of Physics and Applied Physics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and director of its Lowell Center for Space Science and Technology. "This also gives us an opportunity to design a mission that leverages technology we've been developing and space qualifying in our NASA-supported programs."
The Blue Moment
Beyond pioneering a range of cutting-edge technologies, Project Blue represents a new kind of endeavor: a privately-funded partnership of research organizations, universities and industry aiming to play a leadership role in space science. With BoldlyGo Institute and Mission Centaur at the helm, a number of leading institutions will partner on the project, with the list expected to grow.
"We're excited to be an original member of this distinguished consortium working on this seminal project," said Bill Diamond, President and CEO of the SETI Institute. "The SETI Institute has accumulated world-class scientific and technical expertise from previous space missions that we can contribute to make Project Blue a success."
The partnership will combine its expertise to design, construct and operate the mission. Launch services will be provided by one of several commercial vendors expected to be proven by the time of launch.