Project Blue: Full Mission Brief

Project Blue is a science initiative to capture the first photograph of a potential Earth-like planet orbiting another Sun-like star. The mission aims to launch a lightweight space telescope to directly image exoplanets around Earth’s nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. With a budget the fraction of the cost of a mid-size astrophysics mission, and a planned launch by early next decade, this venture represents an ambitious leap forward in low-cost, high-impact space exploration. Through active collaboration between research institutions, universities, private industry and citizens, Project Blue seeks to make space exploration a participatory, collective endeavor and inspire millions worldwide to engage in scientific inquiry.

 
 
 
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Why This Mission?

We believe a sister Earth could exist not too far from the place we call home, and that our generation has a unique opportunity to discover it. Ten years ago, we didn’t know if planets like Earth were common in the universe. Then NASA’s Kepler mission launched and discovered thousands of rocky planets orbiting stars, some of which are at a distance from their parent star 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. Taking a picture of one of these rocky worlds orbiting another star is our next big challenge.

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Why Alpha Centauri?

Quite simply, we believe Alpha Centauri is the best target for direct imaging an Earth-like planet in coming years.

  1. Alpha Centauri is our closest neighboring solar system at only 4.37 light years away. The close proximity allows us to design a small telescope and keep the mission cost down, making our mission more affordable than a project that would use similar technology to conduct a survey of star systems further away.

  2. Alpha Centauri has two stars (Alpha Cen A and B) similar to our Sun in size, brightness and temperature. This is an incredible opportunity for the Project Blue mission because it increases the likelihood of discovering a planet in a habitable zone.

  3. Alpha Centauri is the focus of many research efforts because of its proximity to Earth. The quest to detect planets around the Alpha Centauri stars has been ongoing and spans the entire range of detection methods including ‘wobble’ (radial velocities, astrometry), photometric and direct imaging techniques. Project Blue is unique in pursuing a dedicated coronagraphic space telescope mission, but is one of numerous efforts seeking to improve on past attempts.

  4. A small, rocky planet was recently discovered in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri, called Proxima b. Proxima Centauri is the third star in the Alpha Centauri system, though it is much smaller than Alpha Cen A or B. The exoplanet Proxima b was detected indirectly; scientists measured a small ‘wobble’ in the motion of the star due to the gravity of the planet in its orbit. Although Proxima b orbits in the habitable zone of its parent star, the star is such a small, dim star (called a red dwarf) its habitable zone and Proxima b’s orbit are incredibly close — nine times closer than Mercury is to our Sun. This is why Project Blue is not trying to image Proxima b. It would take a much larger telescope to resolve the star from the planet, and not even the largest space telescopes being planned could do so in visible light. But the good news is that we now know that there’s a terrestrial-class planet orbiting one of the stars in the Alpha Centauri system. This makes us optimistic that there could be other rocky planets orbiting Alpha Cen A and B.

 
 

Our Mission Partners

Project Blue brings together scientists, technical experts and resources from BoldlyGo Institute, Mission Centaur, the SETI Institute, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and other institutions. Team members are top experts in the fields of exoplanet research, instrumentation, advanced optical telescope design, and space mission development, and have been working for years on the science investigation techniques and technology that Project Blue will use.

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The SETI Institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to scientific research, education and public outreach. The Institute's mission is to explore, understand, and explain the origin and nature of life in the universe, and to apply the knowledge gained to inspire and guide present and future generations. The Institute comprises three centers, the Center for Education, the Carl Sagan Center for the Study of Life in the Universe and the Center for Public Outreach. Founded in November 1984, the SETI Institute began operations on February 1, 1985. Today it employs over 130 scientists, educators and support staff.

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The University of Massachusetts Lowell is an urban public research university in Lowell, Massachusetts (USA). Project Blue's partner Dr. Supriya Chakrabarti leads a research group based at UMass-Lowell since 2012 that develops instrumentation for direct imaging of exoplanets, among others. The group also conducts scientific studies of galaxies and upper atmospheres. Dr. Chakrabarti, professor of physics at UMass-Lowell is the 2016 recipient of the SPIE George W. Goddard Award, in recognition of exceptional achievement in optical or photonic instrumentation for aerospace, atmospheric science, or astronomy.

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Mission Centaur is a nonprofit organization that fosters public and private collaboration through Project Blue, an initiative seeking to find and capture the first image of an Earth-like planet in neighboring star system Alpha Centauri. Mission Centaur was founded by a group of philanthropists, scientists, and engineers to pursue one of humanity’s most ambitious and transformational space exploration missions.

Our Expert Team

Project Blue's mission concept is based on the published work of Dr. Eduardo Bendek and Dr. Rus Belikov to image planets in the habitable zone of Alpha Cen A & B using a highly optimized coronagraphic telescope devoted to image the HZ of both stars. For more information about Dr. Belikov and Dr. Bendek’s mission concept, see here and here, and references therein. Other notable work by our STAC members that have contributed to advancement of the direct imaging techniques Project Blue will use in its mission include Dr. Guyon's general work on the PIAA coronagraph, and Dr. Males’ concept of Orbital Differential Imaging which specifically takes advantage of a mission focused on a single star system to enable sensitivity to Earth-like planets.

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Dr. Eduardo Bendek

BAER Institute

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Dr. Nathalie Cabrol

Carl Sagan Center for Research at The SETI Institute

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Dr. Supriya Chakrabarti

UMass Lowell

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Dr. Debra Fischer

Yale University

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Dr. Colin Goldblatt

University of Victoria

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Dr. Michael Hart

University of Arizona

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Dr. Jim Kasting

Penn State University

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Dr. Jared Males

University of Arizona

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Dr. Evgenya Shkolnik

Arizona State University

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Dr. Margaret Turnbull

Carl Sagan Center of Research at The SETI Insitute

Dr. Olivier Guyon

University of Arizona

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Dr. Jon Morse

BoldlyGo Institute, Project Blue Mission Executive (Acting)

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Dr. Franck Marchis

The SETI Institute, Project Blue Science Operations Lead

 
 
 
 
 

The Science & Technology

Science Objective

Directly detect and characterize Earth-like planets in the aCen A&B system.

Science Impact

We aim to provide the scientific community with an instrument capable of investigating the Alpha Centauri system within about 3 years. Any planets Project Blue finds will be excellent potential targets for future large space telescopes being developed by NASA and other space agencies. In particular, if any potentially habitable planets are found, there will be a substantial surge of interest to apply spectroscopic techniques to discern details about the nature of the planets and their atmospheres.

Project Blue will demonstrate and test coronagraph and wavefront technologies similar to ones that could be used on much larger future space telescopes currently being studied by NASA (e.g., HabEX, LUVOIR), and thus help to retire technical risks and hone the observing techniques and data processing algorithms for those missions.


The Technology

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 exoplanets. 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.

The ~50-cm (or slightly less than 20-inch) diameter aperture telescope is small enough to fit on a coffee table, but powerful enough to detect a small, rocky exoplanet in the Alpha Centauri system. The challenge is like trying to see a tiny firefly buzzing around two feet from a powerful lighthouse light from 100 miles away. And since Alpha Centauri has two bright stars close to each other, we have to suppress the light of both stars. Our specialized starlight suppression system consists of:

  1. An instrument called a coronagraph to block starlight, using either the Phase Induced Amplitude Apodization (PIAA) or Vector Vortex technique;

  2. A deformable mirror, low-order wavefront sensors, and software control algorithms to manipulate the incoming light and achieve multi-star wavefront control (MSWC); and

  3. Post-processing methods, called Orbital Differential Imaging (ODI), to enhance image contrast.

Such a system, including the MSWC and ODI features, has been proposed and published for suppressing the light from Alpha Centauri A and B simultaneously to detect surrounding exoplanets. 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 small satellite rocket, such as the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne or Orbital ATK Pegasus, and place it into a low-Earth orbit designed to provide stable conditions needed for making such precise measurements.

The potential payoff for this mission would be incredibly profound. By directly imaging another planet in the closest star system to our own, Project Blue could gather vital data that would indicate if any planets there are habitable. [...] If [the mission] should prove to be successful, Project Blue would allow for some of the greatest scientific finds in history.
— Matt Williams, Universe Today
 
 
 

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As a private nonprofit organization, BoldlyGo seeks the support of our global community of space enthusiasts. In our work, every dollar counts so any level of contribution is so valuable and appreciated by our team. Please considering donating to make missions like Project Blue a reality.

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