This Ambitious New Telescope Might Be Able To Find Life On Proxima b

The PLANETS Foundation/YouTube

Jonathan O`Callaghan 20 Sep 2017, 14:47

A group of astronomers is seeking your help to build a revolutionary new telescope that could image the surface of worlds outside our Solar System.

The project to create the telescope, which will be known as the ExoLife Finder (ELF), is being run by the PLANETS Foundation. The group is seeking $35,000 on Kickstarter to build a prototype of one part of the telescope. Eventually, it hopes to build a fully fledged telescope in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

The prototype part the group wants your money to build is called a mirror actuator, which would basically be responsible for moving the telescope’s mirrors. The idea is to use 16 circular 3D-printed mirrors, each 5 meters (16 feet) across, to gather light from distant solar systems.

Once finished, the telescope would have a diameter of 25 meters (82 feet), making it sensitive enough to image exoplanets within 25 light-years of Earth. The first target would be Proxima b, a planet orbiting our nearest star, Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light-years away.

“The ExoLife Finder…will be the world's first and only telescope capable of imaging oceans, continents, and life on nearby exoplanets,” The PLANETS Foundation wrote on its Kickstarter page.

“ELF is designed for detecting the energy signature of life or life’s likely chemical fingerprints in the atmosphere from water, oxygen, methane, and ozone, or on the surface from photosynthetic biopigments.”

The project is currently about halfway to its funding goal, with 18 days left to go. If successful, the true test will come next year, when it attempts to seek funding for the entire telescope – $130 million. It’s unclear how they’ll do this at the moment. It would then take 5 years to build.

A previous attempt by the PLANETS Foundation to build a telescope had a few funding issues. Known as The Colossus, this device would have used 58 separate mirrors to search for life, making it the largest optical and infrared telescope in the world. The cost of $600 million proved too much to raise, but perhaps the ELF – billed as “Colossus-lite” – will fare better.

The search for life is arguably the hottest area in astronomy right now. Whether the desire to find out if we’re alone is enough to get the new project up and running remains to be seen. But if the proposal is sound, who wouldn’t want to get involved?

“In only a few months after ELF is completed, we will know if there is life on [Proxima b],” the team wrote. “We will learn if we have neighbors, small or big.”

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