An estimated 600 million people worldwide sat in front of their TV sets on July 20, 1969, watching as Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon. Though a lot has changed since then, big moments in the history of space exploration still have the power to unite the world. NASA’s groundbreaking Kepler mission, launched back in 2009, thrilled scientists and UFO enthusiasts alike by confirming the presence of thousands of exoplanets, or planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy. Now, a consortium of leading space and research organizations called Project Blue has launched a mission to photograph one of these Earth-like exoplanets for the first time—and they’re asking for the public’s help to make it happen.
Project Blue isn’t your traditional space mission. Unlike the wide-ranging, long-running projects NASA is known for (think Hubble, Kepler and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope), the collaborative science consortium has a far more specific focus and objective: to build and launch a telescope that will look at Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to our own, and try to find and photograph an Earth-like planet orbiting either of its two sun-like stars.
Also unlike your typical multi-billion-dollar mission, Project Blue will be relatively low in cost, thanks to its specificity and to recent advances in space technology, travel and research. Today, Project Blue launched a six-week-long Kickstarter campaign to fund the analysis, design and simulations that will form the foundation of the mission, giving anyone who wants it a chance to get involved with the mission at the ground level.
“Scientists generally recognize that finding other Earth-like planets is one of the holy grails of exoplanet research,” says Jon Morse, a former NASA astrophysicist and current chief executive of the BoldlyGo Institute, one of the organizations leading Project Blue. “[Kepler] has completely changed our ideas about what’s possible out there in terms of solar systems. It has shown that there are lots of small planets like the terrestrial planets that are in our solar system—like Venus or even Mars.” In fact, it’s estimated that there are more Earth-like planets in the universe than there are people alive on Earth today.
Project Blue is focusing on Alpha Centauri for a simple but powerful reason: Located 4.37 light years away, the binary star system is by far our closest neighbor. The next closest star, Epsilon Eridani, is 2.5 times further away. Thanks to the groundwork laid by NASA’s Kepler mission—which effectively took a census of how many exoplanets are out there and their size distribution—the scientists behind Project Blue believe there is an 80-85 percent chance that an Earth-like planet is orbiting Alpha Centauri A and/or Alpha Centauri B, the two sun-like stars in the binary star system.
In addition to Kepler’s findings, recent advances in technology and research have combined to make Project Blue’s goal of getting the first actual glimpse of another planet similar to our own seem uniquely attainable. Research published in October 2015 showed that it would be possible to photograph the habitable zone—where the planetary surface can support liquid water as well as an atmosphere—of Alpha Centauri. Then in August, astronomers announced they had discovered a potentially habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, another star in the Alpha Centauri system.
While Proxima Centauri is closer to Earth than Alpha Centauri A and B, it is far smaller and dimmer, with only 1/600th the luminosity of the sun. The newly discovered exoplanet, Proxima b, also orbits much closer to its star, and is unlikely to be very similar to the Earth. By contrast, Alpha Centauri A and B are far bigger, brighter and more similar to our sun, making it much more likely that exoplanets orbiting within their habitable zones will be Earth-like. As Brett Marty, the executive director of Mission Centaur and chief marketing officer of Project Blue, puts it: “We’re focusing on the sun-like stars, Alpha Centauri A and B, because they’re much more likely to have habitable zones as we’re familiar with them.”
“The timing is fortuitous about Proxima b because it really adds a lot of excitement,” Morse adds. “We already know there’s a terrestrial-class planet in the star system, and so that makes us feel more positive about the potential for finding similar-class planets around Alpha Centauri A and B.” But while Proxima b, like most exoplanets, was discovered indirectly, through the tiny variations in the light that signal a planet crossing between its star and Earth, Project Blue’s goal is to be the first to photograph an exoplanet directly, and get the first view of another planet similar to our own.
Morse stresses that the telescope needed for the Project Blue mission measures just half a meter (18 inches)—about the size of a small washing machine. It will be equipped with an instrument called a coronagraph, which blocks the light emitted from stars, allowing the scientists to see any surrounding planets. “We call it Project Blue because we’re hoping to see blue, we’re hoping to see a planet like the Earth,” Marty says. The color blue could indicate the presence of oceans or an atmosphere on the planet’s surface.
The crowd-funding campaign for Project Blue runs from November 15 through December 20, and has set a $1 million goal to lay the technical groundwork for the mission. Anyone who contributes to Project Blue at any level can sign up to get mission updates, all the way up to when the team announces its results. At the higher levels, contributors may be eligible for other perks, including meeting the scientists or attending the launch of the telescope.
The mission’s initial phase is expected to last two years, and Morse estimates it will cost somewhere from $25-50 million in all. “We are starting with the Kickstarter campaign, which truly will be to ‘kickstart’ the mission,” he says. “If we have a goal of $1 million, which other campaigns for space missions have raised, we can do significant technical work to get this mission going, and that’s what you need to take it to the next level of fundraising.”
“We can do several things by involving the community first,” Marty says. “We can get people excited about science and spur their imagination about space exploration—what’s out there and what does it mean for us. Also, we get to involve them from the beginning….Everything we’re doing is trying to get the world involved, interested and excited.”