View of Southern Cross with Alpha and Beta Centauri (NASA)
A new group of scientists is embarking on what could be the biggest scientific discovery of all time — to capture an image of another habitable planet.
NASA's Kepler telescope opened the door to the new field of exoplanet research. Kepler found thousands of new exoplanets, and the number of those involved in the exoplanet community has skyrocketed. It is now one of the hottest research topics today when just 30 years ago the thought of exoplanets was only speculative.
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This group of scientists is determined to take a photograph of an Earth-like planet around our closest Sun-like stellar neighbors, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B. (There's a dimmer red dwarf companion, Proxima Centauri, that is slightly closer.) In the style of the Pale Blue Dot photo taken in 1990, the scientists hope to capture an image they say will be so powerful it unites the human race.
To do this they are building a space telescope made specifically for this purpose called Mission Centaur. They plan to launch into low-Earth orbit in 2019, representing the ambitious leap of low-cost, but high-impact space exploration. Their objective is simple, but could shed light on the age old question: Is there other life out there?
The mission’s main scientific goal is to directly image the HZ of the nearest star system, aCenA&B, with the capability of recognizing “Earth-like” or larger planets. Earth-like means between about 0.5 and 2 of the size of the Earth, orbiting within the habitable zone of the host star, and possessing a blue atmosphere.
If such planets exist in the aCenA&B system, the mission will be the first to take a direct “pale blue dot” image of another Earth. It will reveal the next potentially habitable frontier beyond the Solar System and spur larger missions, which will search for definitive signs of life on that planet, as well as explore more distant star systems.
Such discovery would also cause a major shift in space exploration policies and would accelerate the search for life in our galaxy. It will significantly increase public interest, encouraging large exoplanet flagship missions. To accomplish this goal, Mission Centaur and partners will build a state of the art exoplanet imaging space telescope and launch it into low earth orbit. With a budget that represents about less than 10% of a mid-size astrophysics mission and planned launch in 2019, this venture represents an ambitious leap forward in low cost, high impact space exploration.
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The hope is to make this mission one of the most inclusive open-science programs in space exploration. The team will actively collaborate with students and private organizations on the development and construction of ancillary and supporting systems. By facilitating access to its wide-field telescope and open-source data, this initiative seeks to inspire millions of students and children worldwide to engage in astronomy and foster their interest in STEM related fields.
More info at http://missioncentaur.org/