Project Blue – Independent Astronomers Work On Finding Earth-Like Exoplanets

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One of the three astronauts orbiting around the Moon back in 1968, Bill Anders, saw Earth rising above the Moon’s horizon. He captured the breathtaking view and returned to Earth with one of the most epochal images of the space age. Now, a bunch of privately founded astronomers plans to reenact the moment by capturing a new stunning image but of other blue planets, Earth-like exoplanets. That is the Project Blue program that’s now rolling.

Meet the Project Blue program

Known as ‘Project Blue,’ the mission’s target is to build and launch a space telescope which will search and capture any exoplanets in the zones prone to hold life, on the closest Sun-like stars. If there will be such planets with oceans and atmospheres, then the team could even ‘see Blue,’ the project’s term for discovering a probably habitable planet.

The mission is the innovation of the BoldlyGo Institute, founded by Dr. Jon Morse, a former NASA scientist, and White House adviser. The non-profit organization aims to investigate fascinating scientific questions utilizing private money from donors and crowd-funding enterprises.

The chase for Earth-like exoplanets began in 1995 when a couple of Swiss astronomers found 51 Pegasi b, the first exoplanet – or extrasolar planet – discovered around a star resembling our Sun. It has a diameter similar to Jupiter, and it proved that planets were not beyond our technological capabilities.

In the decades since over 4,000 exoplanets were discovered but almost none of them have been captured. The issue is that planets do not produce any light on their own, but rather reflect their star’s light. NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope discovered the majority of the exoplanets currently known. Its tools were sharp enough to detect smaller terrestrial planets, but none of them have been proved to be like the Earth.
However, the closest star system to the Sun has two stars that could be incredibly excellent places to explore.

The hunt for Earth-like exoplanets

Alpha Centauri is constructed of three stars in reciprocal orbit around each other. One of these stars is dubbed Proxima Centauri, a red dwarf object and thus significantly smaller and colder than the Sun. Among the others, Alpha Centauri B is alike our Sun and Alpha Centauri A is virtually the same. The researches on these two objects show that there are no massive planets in this array. In other words, if there are any planets there, they can only be of the size of Earth and having orbits as our planet has as well.

Morse says that this is the place they want to test out. ​The program suggests a small space telescope, with its mirror of just 0.5 meters in diameter and this makes it approximately half of the Kepler’s size. However, this should be sufficient for Project Blue to capture direct images of any planets as they orbit their star because the craft will utilize a tool named a ‘coronagraph.’ This instrument will obstruct the light from the central star, enabling the dimmer planet to be seen.

Project Blue’s telescope would feature a coronagraph

That would be the first coronagraph designed to capture images of exoplanets similar to Earth. Project Blue is collaborating with NASA, which is working on a future mission named WFIRST (the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope). NASA’s observatory is designed to have the receptiveness of the Hubble Space Telescope but with a field of view 100 times bigger and will also have a coronagraph.

Project Blue will utilize lots of concepts and technology being created for WFIRST to get an orbital test of how to use such a tool to identify Earth-like exoplanets. Morse hopes that the space telescope can be constructed for approximately $50 million and launched in the year 2020 for about $10 million. If he succeeds, the cost could be a turning point, as NASA’s Kepler cost $550 million. The price of the April launch of its most recent telescope, The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite(TESS) mission was $87 million.


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