‘Project Blue’ Hopes To Take First Photos Of Alpha Centauri Exoplanets

This morning, a scientific research consortium announced future plans to construct and launch a privately financed telescope, called Project Blue. This new, privately-funded undertaking is being launched in the hope of finding an Earth-like planet in the Alpha Centauri system, one of the closest star systems to ours.

Project Blue
The planet around Alpha Centauri B by European Southern Observatory, Flickr

Jon Morse, the chief executive of the BoldlyGo Institute, called finding an Earth-like planet “the holy grail of exoplanet research.” If there is such a planet at Alpha Centauri, the proposed telescope would allow scientists to study it in detail, looking for signs of life, and the potential of habitability.

Project Blue launched in hopes to find habitable exoplanet

The telescope, dubbed “Project Blue,” is to be finished by the end of the decade. The mission is an example of one that NASA rarely undertakes, one that is very focused and cost-effective, one which to lead to massive astronomical discoveries, or maybe nothing at all.

The two stars that make up the Alpha Centauri binary star system are both somewhat similar to the sun, the closest of the pair being a little less than four and a half light years away.

Project Blue, the scope of which will be less than two feet in diameter, would have the ability to make out Earth-like planets orbiting the stars in what is known as the “habitable zone”: the area around the star where temperatures are warm enough for liquid water and for life to thrive.

If astronomers could photograph a planet directly, this would allow them to search for specific wavelengths of light. Detection of oxygen in the atmosphere, for example, could be a signifier for the possible presence of photosynthesis and plant life.

“We launched Project Blue because we believe such a discovery would profoundly impact humankind’s understanding of the universe and spur a new wave of excitement in science and astronomy,” said Morse.

While ambitious, the project is also very expensive for a private endeavor

Jon Morse said that Project Blue would not be cheap: it will most likely cost around $25 million to $50. While this does, at first, seem like quite a hefty sum of money, it is only about one-third the cost of a NASA mission with similar goals. However, as this is a private endeavor, it will be difficult to raise capital for the undertaking.

According to Morse, they “do have to approach high-net-worth individuals and foundations.” Participating institutions, such as the SETI Institutes and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, could also potentially offer non-monetary donations to the undertaking.

BoldlyGo Institute is also pursuing two other amazing projects, however they have yet to see the light of day: a larger space telescope as well as a spacecraft built to collect samples from the Martian atmosphere and bring them back to Earth.

Jon Morse, who was once the head of NASA’s astrophysics division, believes that while Project Blue will certainly be a difficult undertaking, it is definitely possible.

“All we’re doing is borrowing the model that ground-based astronomy has been using literally since the time of John Quincy Adams,” said Morse. “We think that quest is worthy, and we’re going to try to do it with private funding.”

Photo by European Southern Observatory