Project Blue: Our first attempt to photograph Earth-like planet

12 Oct 2016

Alpha Centauri through a small telescope. Image: Tragoolchitr Jittasaiyapan/Shutterstock

Following the discovery of our nearest exoplanetary neighbour, Proxima b, a new consortium of astronomers and scientists have formed Project Blue that will aim to photograph planets in the Alpha Centauri system for the very first time.

Proxima b is the latest darling of the astronomical community since its discovery, made in conjunction with the European Southern Observatory back in August.

Because of its proximity to Earth – as part of the neighbouring Alpha Centauri star system – Proxima b would be the first port of call for any future interstellar journey by humans, as challenging as that might be.

Future Human

In the meantime however, a consortium of leading science and research institutions, led by the BoldlyGo Institute and Mission Centaur, has announced Project Blue: an ambitious effort to photograph potential habitable planets that may be orbiting the stars, Alpha Centauri A + B in the aCen system.

Despite having some incredibly powerful telescopes both here on Earth and in orbit, there is currently no telescope with high enough contrast capability to observe orbiting planets directly.

Those working on the project will attempt to fund, build and launch a compact exoplanet imaging telescope aimed at Alpha Centauri and hopefully capture the next generation’s ‘pale blue dot’ image.

The pale blue dot is famous among astronomers and stargazers as the photo taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990 that showed Earth from a distance of 6bn km away, marking our place in the universe.

The challenges posed by two stars

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.

In terms of a potential timeline, the Project Blue team has estimated that the telescope will take about three years to construct and will be followed by an intensive two-year study once in orbit.

Alpa Centauri stars

The highest resolution photo we have of the Alpha Centauri system. Image: ESA/NASA

Project Blue’s customised telescope will be mounted on a commercial spacecraft and will only monitor the Alpha Centauri system from a special north-south, low-Earth orbit, providing the stable conditions necessary for precise measurements.

One of the challenges facing Project Blue is the fact that Alpha Centauri is a tightly packed binary star system, making it necessary to suppress both light sources.

If the team is successful, one possibility it can look out for is whether the planet has vast oceans of liquid water on its surface.

Photograph an ocean?

In the past few days, research published by the French research agency CNRS proposed that Proxima b might be ‘covered’ in oceans that could harbour some form of life.

“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 neighbour, Alpha Centauri,” said Jon Morse, CEO of the 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.”

Decreasing the odds of successful capturing a photograph of the planet is another mission that plans to send a spacecraft directly to the star system at 20pc of the speed of light.

Called Breakthrough Starshot, the ambitious project will attempt to use powerful lasers to send miniature spacecraft to the neighbouring star system in a timeframe of just 20 years, returning images and data of the region in the process.

Updated, 3.05pm, 12/10/2016: This article was amended to include the video link giving an overview of Project Blue, as well as making it clear that it will be used to photograph planets orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B in the aCen system, not just Proxima b.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic