Twenty-five years ago, there was only a single star in the entirety of the universe that we knew had planets circling it: our sun. But thanks to big space telescopes like Hubble and especially Kepler, we now know nothing could be further from the truth.
"We know of a couple thousand planets around stars," Supriya Chakrabarti, a professor of physics and applied physics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, explained. "And even around some stars, we have found multiple planets similar to our solar system."
Most of these planets are orbiting stars that are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of light years from Earth. But there are two sun-like stars just four light years away: Alpha Centauri A and B. At present, we have no idea if there are any plants circling them. Enter Project Blue.
"Well, this project has a very simple goal — to take the first image of a planet around our nearest sun-like star," Chakrabarti said.
Kepler and Hubble are designed to look deep into space, at the faintest of light. The Alpha Centauri stars are just too close and too bright. But developing technology to take photos of very dim objects in front of big, bright lights is Chakrabarti’s specialty.
"You’re trying to turn off the light of the star and look at the effect of the reflective light of the star from its neighborhood," he explained. "So that’s called coronagraphy, and that’s one of the key technologies we’ve been working on for a while."
For $25 million to $50 million, the Project Blue team figures it can design, build, launch, and run a telescope to do one thing, and one thing only: look for another Earth in the Alpha Centauri system. The team will observe the habitable zone around the two stars, searching for a pale blue dot. The color is key, as a blue hue would mean — just like Earth — a very watery world.
To fund the project, the team isn’t turning to NASA or the European Space Agency. Instead, they’re turning to the public.
"We want to involve the crowd," Worcester’s Jon Morse, former astrophysics director at NASA and mission executive for Project Blue, told WGBH. "We think that this mission is very appealing to the public, and we want them to be a part of it from the beginning."
The team's goal is to crowdfund the first million dollars — enough to pay for the design phase — through a Kickstarter campaign that is currently underway. From there, Morse says they will seek a combination of philanthropic and private dollars to cover the rest.
"We’re basically adopting a funding model which ground-based astronomers and lots of medical institutes, for example, have been using for decades," he said.
The data suggests there’s between a 60 and 80 percent chance that one of the two stars has an Earth-like planet orbiting it. But Morse says if they can simply build and launch the telescope, it will be a victory, pushing new technologies forward and demonstrating the viability of a new way to fund space science.
"We hope this becomes part of the normal ecosystem of carrying on scientific research from space in the future," Morse said. "Not just Project Blue but, as humans move out into the solar system, to have private philanthropy and private industry help lead the way."
Of course, if Project Blue does find the funding, there's a change it will hit pay dirt — a discovery Morse says would fundamentally alter the course of space research, and maybe even human history.
"It would be amazing to know there is an Earth-like planet around our nearest star system," he said. "It would really tell us that we are possibly part of a community and that this would be the first destination if in the many years to come we venture beyond."