A new space mission is underway to search for potentially habitable planets around the closest neighboring star system to Earth.
In a project that echoes the 2009 movie Avatar, an international collaboration between Australian and US scientists will search the Alpha Centauri star system for Earth-like planets that could harbor life.
Alpha Centauri – the closest neighboring star system to Earth – consists of two Sun-like stars, known as Alpha Centauri A and B, and a more distant red dwarf star.
The Toliman mission, named after the ancient star system derived from the Arabic language, will search for possible planets orbiting Alpha Centauri A and B.
The Toliman telescope, under construction, is expected to be launched into low Earth orbit in 2023. This telescope seeks to discover new planets in “Goldilocks orbit” – at an appropriate distance, so that neither the planet is too hot nor too cold to support life.
Project leader Professor Peter Tuthill, University of Sydney, said: “If we are looking for life as we know it, the gold standard is usually a planet where liquid water can exist. On the planet’s surface – so it’s not like a frozen snowball, and it doesn’t boil all the water in the atmosphere.
“We know that life evolved at least once, around a sun-like star on an Earth-like planet,” Tuthill said. “We are trying to find other examples that are as close to this setting as possible.”
Tuthill compared the search for planets to solving a puzzle: He said that the signals emitted by the planets are “very accurate” and “very weak” compared to the signals from the stars.
Despite the seemingly frequent discovery of outer planets — Planets outside our solar system — “About our closest Sun-like stars, we have no idea if there are … Earth-like planets,” Tuthill said.
The Toliman mission will attempt to discover planets by studying whether the stars of Alpha Centauri A and B flash from side to side, due to the presence of unseen planets pulling on them by the force of gravity.
The expedition’s collaborators previously discovered”candidate planetIt potentially orbits Alpha Centauri A, but its existence has not been conclusively confirmed.
“If this were a real planet, it would be something like a Neptune-like planet…a gas giant,” Tuthill said. “Maybe there is a moon around on which life can survive.”
This possibility has an analogue in science fiction: James Cameron’s 2009 film, symbol pictureIt is set on Pandora, a fictional habitable moon orbiting a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri system.
“If this discovery were to be confirmed, James Cameron came first with his film,” Tuthill said.
Tuthill added that at 4.37 light-years from the sun, Alpha Centauri will be an obvious destination for any future interstellar travel.
However, a “terrible technological leap” would be required to make this happen. “As fast as modern space probes, it’s almost 100,000 years old.”
“This is not in my lifetime, but it is still a visionary future where we can imagine developing technologies … capable of covering these interstellar voids.”
In collaboration with the University of Sydney, Toliman’s mission includes scientists from Saber Astronautics in Australia, and the Breakthrough Initiatives and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States.
“It could be the largest privately funded space telescope ever,” Tuthill said.
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