A team of astronomers is planning to launch a satellite in 2019 that can take a direct image of an Earth-like planet around our nearest star system.
The initiative, called Project Blue, was announced earlier this week. Started by the non-profit BoldlyGo Institute, the plan is to attempt to image a world in the Alpha Centauri system, 4.37 light-years away, by 2022.
The inspiration for the project is the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth. Taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 when the spacecraft was 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) away, the image showed Earth “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” the astronomer Carl Sagan famously said of the image, which was taken at his request.
This new telescope would attempt to one-up the Pale Blue Dot, by taking an image of another Earth-like world – if there is one – around the Alpha Centauri system. This system is made up of two stars, and while we don’t yet know for sure if there’s a planet around one, mounting evidence suggests most stars have a planet.
The system also contains Proxima Centauri, around which the Earth-like world Proxima b was recently discovered. However, Jon Morse, CEO of the BoldlyGo Institute, told IFLScience that it would likely not be possible to see this world via this project.
“Proxima b is in the habitable zone but orbits about nine times closer to the parent star than Mercury does our Sun,” he said. “This small separation between the star and Proxima b is not resolvable with a small space telescope, and would take something much larger (and much more expensive) to directly image.”
A render of what the telescope will look like
Expected to cost $50 million, the mission will involve using a specially built satellite to observe the Alpha Centauri system for two years, in the hope of imaging a planet. This would not be the first direct image of a planet outside our Solar System; many have been taken before. But at such a close distance, this image would likely have profound implications, and it could also reveal intriguing features on a nearby world such as the presence of water or an atmosphere.
To take the image, the satellite would use a coronagraph to block the light of the parent star. Such technology has been touted before to image exoplanets, and this telescope could act as a proof of concept.
“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,” the Project Blue team say on their website.
Whether the project will be successful or not remains to be seen. But it’s a nice idea, and it could just provide us with a fascinating image of a nearby Earth-like world.