Project Blue: A Space Telescope to Find Another Earth (Canceled)
Project Blue: A Space Telescope to Find Another Earth (Canceled)
A mission to build and launch a telescope to observe and photograph Earth-like planets around our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.
A mission to build and launch a telescope to observe and photograph Earth-like planets around our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. Read more
A note from the Project Blue team:
Today is the last day of our campaign, and while we haven’t met our goal of $1 million, the team at Project Blue is incredibly proud and thankful for the community we have built here through Kickstarter.
When we started this mission, we did so with the knowledge that it is incredibly ambitious. We carried that ambition to Kickstarter when we set such a high target goal. Over 1,500 backers have pledged more than $300,000. That is incredible. It’s truly inspiring to see how many people out there care about the future of space exploration and want to make sure we get that first glimpse at another planet like ours.
As we move forward on this journey, please be part of our mission, share your thoughts, and stay involved. We’ll keep an eye on Kickstarter, and may send an update from time-to-time. But if you want more frequent updates, as we hope you do, we encourage you to join our mailing list at projectblue.org.
As a remember —we can’t do this without you. So, please, consider a tax-deductible donation to help us launch the telescope that could find another Earth.
Other ways to stay involved:
- Sign up for our newsletter on the Project Blue website to receive regular mission updates
- Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and share our content with your friends
- Learn about our partner orgs: Mission Centaur, BoldlyGo Institute, and SETI Institute
Thank you for supporting and being part of Project Blue.
Finding the first planet like Earth beyond our solar system would transform how we think about our place in the universe.
Ten years ago, we didn’t know if planets like Earth were common in the universe. Then NASA’s Kepler mission launched, and changed everything. Kepler discovered thousands of rocky planets orbiting stars, some of which are at a distance where liquid water could exist on the surface. It’s estimated that there are more Earth-like planets in the universe than people alive today. But we’ve never actually seen one.
Thanks to recent breakthroughs, the technology now exists to capture a direct image of an Earth-like planet outside our solar system. That's what we aim to do.
Project Blue is a consortium of leading space and research organizations on a mission to build and launch a small space telescope to observe planets around our nearest stellar neighbors: Alpha Centauri A and B (now also known as Rigil Kentaurus).
Our goal is to capture an image, visible to the human eye, of orbiting planets. Seeing a "pale blue dot" could indicate the presence of oceans or an atmosphere — the potential to support life. It would be our first view of another world like our own. With a modest budget and a planned launch by 2020, this goal is tantalizingly close.
This isn’t a traditional space mission.
Within astrophysics, NASA has traditionally funded projects with a much broader scope, like Kepler and Hubble, rather than a project like ours that is focused on a single target. So we started this campaign with the belief that together, people all over the world can push the boundaries of discovery in space and achieve one of the greatest milestones of human exploration.
We need your help.
Project Blue brought together the technical experts who can build and launch this telescope: scientists from nonprofit organizations like BoldlyGo Institute, Mission Centaur, the SETI Institute, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Now we’re asking for your support to make Project Blue a reality.
"The first telescope to photograph a 'pale blue dot' of another Earth in a distant solar system may not be funded by NASA, the European Space Agency, or some other government agency.
It might come from Kickstarter."
This mission won't be possible without the design and research you’ll support.
We need $1 million to lay the groundwork for the mission through preliminary analysis, design, and simulations.
We’ll design the system architecture based on detailed requirements laid out by our Science & Technology Advisory Committee (STAC). This is how the telescope, coronagraph, spacecraft bus, and ground system all work together to acquire, store, transmit, and process the pictures that the Project Blue mission will take. After initial design, we’ll run mission simulations to predict performance, and will make a Mission Performance Simulator available online for backers to run their own simulations. We will also be able to obtain materials for constructing the primary telescope mirror.
Seeing Blue: What Are We Looking For?
NASA’s Kepler mission has been wildly successful in compiling over 2,300 confirmed exoplanets, telling us about their orbits and sizes, some of which have Earth-like potential. We now know that there are more potentially habitable planets than there are people alive on Earth, just in our galaxy alone! But to know more about a planet’s Earth-like properties, such as whether it hosts water or oxygen, we need more specific detection methods.
With advanced optics technology, we’ll use a technique called “direct imaging” to dim the light from the stars in Alpha Centauri, enabling us to see any surrounding planets. By working in visible light, we hope to gather key details about their composition. Capturing an image of a planet — actually seeing it in visible light — will help us begin to characterize its atmosphere and surface characteristics, especially its potential for oceans. If the planet appears blue — similar to the “pale blue dot” image of Earth taken by Voyager at the edge of our solar system in 1990 — it could suggest the presence of liquid oceans and a substantial atmosphere. We’ll be able to see the first indications about its capacity to support life.
Our 45-50 cm aperture telescope is small enough to fit on a coffee table, but powerful enough to pick up a planet over a billion times dimmer than its star — from four light years away! That’s like seeing a tiny firefly buzzing around a lighthouse from ten miles away. Since Alpha Centauri is a binary system, we have to suppress the light of two stars. So we have to get creative. Our specialized starlight suppression system consists of:
1) An instrument called a coronagraph to block starlight
2) A deformable mirror, low-order wavefront sensors, and control algorithms to control incoming light; and
3) Post-processing methods to enhance image contrast.
With this system and Multi-Star Wavefront Control and Orbital Differential Imaging techniques, scientists at NASA have proposed and published a method to block the light from Alpha Centauri A and B simultaneously and detect any surrounding planets. Our team will leverage this extensive existing research and experimentation.
In order for the telescope to accomplish such an amazing technical challenge, we have to send it to space, where it can operate outside the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere. We’ll launch it on a rocket and place it into an orbit designed to provide stable conditions required for making such precise measurements.
Earth's closest Sun-like star
Animation of the telescope in low-Earth orbit observing Alpha Centauri. Credit: Liz Hyde
Quite simply, Alpha Centauri presents the best opportunity to directly image the first Earth-like planet. We will be capturing images of light visible to the human eye, just like the camera on your phone does. There’s an estimated ~85% probability that the Alpha Centauri system harbors at least one potentially habitable planet that we may be able to see thanks to its:
- Proximity: At only 4.37 light years away, Alpha Centauri is our closest neighboring star. A small, lightweight telescope only a half meter in diameter can resolve the habitable zones around these stars. The next closest Sun-like star is 2.5 times further away and would require a telescope 2.5 times larger in size!
- Binary structure: Alpha Centauri contains not just one, but two stars similar to our Sun — giving us two chances to find planets in either of their habitable zones.
- Sun-like characteristics: Alpha Centauri A is a yellow “G2” type star whose temperature and color closely match the Sun’s, increasing the probability that a planet in its habitable zone is analogous to Earth. Alpha Centauri B is a little cooler and redder than our Sun, but scientists still consider stars like it to be good candidate hosts for Earth-like planets.
An open science consortium
Project Blue is a team of world-renowned space and research organizations, including BoldlyGo Institute, Mission Centaur, the SETI Institute, and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, along with an advisory committee of scientists from Yale University, Penn State University, University of Arizona, Arizona State University, University of Victoria — and you! Our goal is to involve anyone who’s enthusiastic about space science and exploration in one of humanity’s most profound quests.
The Project Blue team is led by Dr. Jon Morse, former NASA director of astrophysics and the CEO of BoldlyGo Institute.
Because the telescope is customized for close viewing of Alpha Centauri, it’ll take just a fraction of the money and time of a larger space mission that would survey dozens or hundreds of stars. We plan to launch the telescope into orbit by late 2019 or early 2020 and will spend up to two years conducting observations for any orbiting exoplanets.
2016: Form partnerships and initiate fundraising
2017: Preliminary design, proof of concept prototypes, integration, and initial instrument prototype
2018: Final mission design, fabrication, assembly, and testing
2019: Final construction and launch to low-Earth orbit
2020 - 2022: Science and mission operations. The phase of scientific discovery!
To learn more about the science behind Project Blue, read Scientific American's Miniature Space Telescope Could Boost the Hunt for "Earth Proxima."
To learn more about exoplanet research and technologies, visit NASA at http://exoplanets.nasa.gov.
Key Mission Supporters
- TechnoClean – $25K Mission Flight Engineer
- The Bendek Family – $25K Mission Commander
- Pictet Group – $10K Mission Commander
- Teilch – $10K Mission Commander
- Jon Morse & Laurie Leshin – $10K Mission Commander
- Jeremy Hitchcock – $5K Mission Commander
- Alba Peinado – $5K Mission Commander
- Brett Marty – $5K Mission Commander
- Chop Shop – Mission art & design
- Oleksander Stecyk – Infographics
- The Planetary Society
Risks and challenges
Capturing an image of a planet sounds like a straightforward goal, but it’s an incredibly challenging task. In fact, until a few years ago, directly imaging a habitable planet around Alpha Centauri was considered to be too difficult, even with a large telescope, because of the need to block the light of two stars. This, despite the fact that Alpha Centauri is so close to us and that it presents two opportunities to host planets around Sun-like stars. Now, we’re taking advantage of recent breakthroughs that finally make it possible. Published research has already described the required technical components both in the lab and in flight, and it gives us immense confidence in the mission’s success. But, as with any space mission, there are technical challenges to making the on orbit instrument perform the same way as in the lab.
Second, there's a chance that there aren't any potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system to find in the first place. However, NASA’s Kepler mission has taught us that exoplanets are everywhere — and small, rocky planets like the Earth appear to be very abundant. Just this summer, a team of astronomers found a planet around Proxima Centauri, the third (but much less Sun-like) star in the Alpha Centauri system. So we know there’s already at least one. You can see why we’re so passionate to explore what planets might lurk around our next-door-neighbor. We can't sit still until we find out.
The technology used to dim starlight, allowing us to see its planets, is new and continuously advancing. As with any developing technologies, it presents some challenges and risks. Starlight suppression has already been demonstrated successfully in the lab, but its application to binary star systems is a new innovation. Our team has extensive experience with successful high-contrast technology development projects, which enables us to confidently anticipate the specific technical requirements and costs. Since we’re focusing exclusively on one star system, we’ll be able to collect a huge amount of targeted data on Alpha Centauri. Optimizing for this one system allows us to design specific system calibration and noise-reduction algorithms, and thus make finding any orbiting planets easier.
Launching and commissioning a spacecraft is risky — sometimes the unexpected happens. The space environment also presents risks, such as maintaining telescope stability under extreme temperature swings and other hazards. But our team has decades of experience designing and building instrumentation for space, and we will work with experienced industry partners to maximize our chances for success. Dealing with risk is hard, but it’s part of why working on space missions is so exciting and rewarding. So while there are challenges ahead, our team’s preparation, expertise, and direct experience make us confident about achieving a truly historic goal.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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