Just over seven years ago, NASA’s Kepler spacecraft soared into the dark skies over Florida.
And with its launch, Kepler revealed a whole new world of space. Worlds, actually. Thousands of them. As of May 2016, Kepler has discovered 2,325 verified planets.
Kepler showed us the possibilities. Project Blue could take the next step. And the people behind it need our help.
Project Blue is looking at crowdfunding to jumpstart their project. This isn’t your typical space mission. Look at any of NASA’s missions, and you’ll find projects with a broad focus. Each spacecraft or rover doesn’t do just one thing. They do several.
Project Blue isn’t like most of these missions. They want to do one thing. And one thing only. Study Alpha Centauri and look for Earth-like planets around it.
Why Alpha Centauri?
Because it’s the closest neighboring star, Project Blue can create a small telescope just a half meter in diameter to spot planets in the habitable zones. The proposed telescope could set on your coffee table. The entire package? The size of a washing machine.
The star system is home to three stars – the pair Alpha Centauri A and B, and the red dwarf, Proxima Centauri. Project Blue wants to focus on the sun-like stars of Alpha Centauri A and B. According to members of the Project Blue team, there’s an 85% probability that an Earth-like planet is orbiting one (or both) of the stars.
Alpha Centauri A is 110% the mass of the Sun and 151.9% of the visual luminosity. Alpha Centauri B is a touch smaller and much cooler at 90.7% mass and 44.5% visual luminosity. These stats make the pair a decent target for several reasons. One, their habitable zones will be similar to our solar system. Two, because habitable planets will be further away from the star – Project Blue can see any potential planets in visible light.
Astronomers already announced a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the red dwarf that also calls Alpha Centauri home. But the problem with planets around red dwarf stars is they tend to orbit close to them. Too close.
Proxima b, as it was dubbed, takes just 11 days to swing all the way around Proxima Centauri. It’s almost a certainty the planet is tidally locked. That means one side is always facing the star, while the other sits in perpetual darkness. One side burns under the relentless gaze of its star. The other side freezes. Zones where the two sides meet could potentially be habitable, but that’s it.
What $1 million gets you?
Project Blue is asking for $1 million. Obviously, that’s not enough to build a telescope and get it into orbit. So what does that $1 million get? This will cover the preliminary analysis, design and simulations for the telescope. Stretch goals will expand from here. $2 million will test the coronagraph – the instrument that blocks out the glaring light from the two stars. $4 million will complete instrument design and begin manufacturing key flight components.
Basically, the Kickstarter is to get Project Blue off the ground.
And Project Blue isn’t being run out of a garage. The project is made up of some of the greatest minds in space and research. Dr. Jon Morse leads the team. He is a former NASA director of astrophysics and CEO of BoldlyGo Institute. Other team members come from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the SET Institute and more.
Project Blue is going to need a lot more money to get this telescope off the ground. Right now, they estimate the cost of the mission will be under $50 million. Sounds like a lot, but it’s chump change compared to NASA’s most powerful telescopes. Kepler hit $600 million, and the James Webb Space Telescope is estimated to have hit $8 billion.
So, where’s the other tens of millions of dollars coming from? Project Blue is already in talks with private donors and other corporations to get there. Today’s Kickstarter is meant to show the interests for such a mission and to get the ball rolling on design and research of the telescope.
The obstacles aren’t just financial. The mission could fail before it reaches orbit. Or, there aren’t any potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system. Kepler shows us there are planets all over the place, but it’s not a guarantee they are in this star system either.
Let’s assume the Kickstarter is successful and Project Blue receives outside funding quickly. What’s the timeline look like? It’ll be 2018 before the final mission design, fabrication assembly and testing is completed. 2019 before it would be launched into low-Earth orbit. And 2020-2022 before we know what Project Blue is seeing.
I wish the folks at Project Blue nothing but success. Kepler proved our solar system isn’t the only one with rocky planets in it. The team at Project Blue hopes they are the ones to prove planets resemble Earth in more ways than one.