Courtesy: Breakthrough Initiatives

A proposed telescope project to potentially spot a life-sustaining planet around Earth’s nearest neighbor, Alpha Centauri, was announced today.

The project is called TOLIMAN, the Arabic-derived name for Alpha Centauri from antiquity. Work on the project began in April of this year.

TOLIMAN stands for Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighborhood – eye-catching wordsmithing and a mouthful.

Spearheading the effort are scientists from the University of Sydney, in partnership with the Breakthrough Initiatives in California, Saber Astronautics in Australia and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The project has received support from the Breakthrough Initiatives, a set of programs looking for extraterrestrial life. The Initiatives were founded by Israeli science and technology investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner.

Also picking up the tab is Saber Astronautics. It received funding from the Australian Government’s International Space Investment: Expand Capability grant, which will support the TOLIMAN mission.

Artist’s conception of Proxima Centauri b as a rocky-like exoplanet, with Proxima Centauri and the Alpha Centauri binary system in the background. The actual appearance of the planet is unknown.
Credit: ESO

Extraordinarily interesting

“Our nearest stellar neighbors – the Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri systems – are turning out to be extraordinarily interesting,” said Pete Worden, executive director of Breakthrough Initiatives.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star that has two stars very like our Sun. Either or both may host temperate planets, while the third star – the red dwarf Proxima Centauri, is already believed to have one planet in a ‘Goldilocks orbit’ discovered 2016. That’s a place where temperatures could allow for liquid surface water on rocky worlds.

Courtesy: Breakthrough Initiatives

Custom-designed

TOLIMAN is a custom-designed space telescope able to make extremely fine measurements of the position of the star in the sky. Indeed, if there is a planet orbiting the star, it will tug on the star revealing a tiny, but measurable, wobble.

The plan is for this agile low-cost mission churning out results by about the middle of the decade, said project leader Peter Tuthill from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy at the University of Sydney.

Central to the mission is the deployment of a new type of telescope that uses a diffractive pupil lens. This mirror spreads starlight captured from nearby stars into a complex flower-like pattern that, paradoxically, makes it easier to detect perturbed star movements that are the tell-tale signs of orbiting planets.

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