A new space telescope mission unveiled today (November 16) will search for habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system, our sun’s closest stellar neighbors.
The new mission, called TOLIMAN from an ancient Arabic-derived name for Alpha Centauri, will carry a novel telescope equipped with a so-called diffractive pupil lens that scatters starlight in a flower-like pattern. This unique lens will make it easier for astronomers using the endoscope to detect small irregularities in the movements of the stars that are generally caused by the gravitational influence of orbiting planets, according to a statement from Breakthrough Initiatives, which supports the mission.
“Even for the closest bright stars in the night sky, finding planets is a great technological challenge,” said Eduardo Bendek, an optical engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a mission collaborator, in the statement.
“Our TOLIMAN mission will launch a custom-designed space telescope that makes extremely accurate measurements of the star’s position in the sky. If there is a planet orbiting the star, it will pull the star, betraying a small, but measurable, wobble,” Bendek said. .
Related: Mysterious Proxima Centauri Radio Signal Was Definitely Not Alien
(Image credit: Innovative initiatives)
Alpha Centauri is the closest solar system to Earth and has three stars, two of which are like our sun. The third star is a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri, a cold but long-lived type of star that is the most common in the universe.
This red dwarf is known to have at least two exoplanets, one of which appears to be quite similar to Earth.
But so far this intriguing star system, just four light-years from us, has avoided detailed scientific scrutiny, even though the planets around these stars might present the most convenient fate for humanity outside of our own solar system.
While a human mission to Alpha Centauri remains science fiction for now, the TOLIMAN telescope will at least attempt to answer some of the most fundamental and pressing questions about its planets. Most importantly, scientists hope to use the new scope to investigate whether these distant worlds could harbor life or perhaps provide the right conditions for its survival.
“Our closest stellar neighbors, the Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri systems, are proving to be extraordinarily interesting,” said Pete Worden, executive director of Breakthrough Initiatives, in the statement. “The TOLIMAN mission will be a great step to discover if there are planets capable of supporting life there.”
(Image credit: Innovative initiatives)
The mission will focus on the habitable zone around the three stars of the system, a region of space in the vicinity of the star where liquid water could exist.
“These nearby planets are where humanity will take our first steps into interstellar space using futuristic high-speed robotic probes,” Pete Klupar, chief engineer of Breakthrough Watch, a branch of Breakthrough Initiatives, said in the statement. “If we consider the closest few dozen stars, we expect a handful of rocky planets like Earth to orbit at the correct distance for liquid water on the surface to be possible.”
Professor Peter Tuthill of the Sydney Institute of Astronomy, who is leading the development of the mission, added that TOLIMAN will begin to answer questions about the nature of these fascinating worlds.
“Knowing our planetary neighbors is very important,” said Professor Tuthill. “These next-door planets are the ones where we have the best prospects for finding and analyzing atmospheres, surface chemistry, and possibly even biosphere fingerprints, tentative signs of life.”
(Image credit: ESO / Digital Sky Survey 2)
The team, which also includes experts from Australian space technology firm Saber Astronautics, began work on the mission in April this year, according to the statement.
The mission received $ 788,000 ($ 576,000) from the Australian government and is expected to be ready for science in the mid-2020s.
“Our plan is for a low-cost, agile mission that delivers results by the middle of the decade,” Tuthill said.
Follow Tereza Pultarova on Twitter @TerezaPultarova. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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