Project Blue, a private initiative, has been announced with plans to launch a cost-effective telescope into Earth's orbit to capture the first ever visible-light image of exoplanets in Alpha Centauri — the nearest star system to the Sun.
The proposed telescope will have an aperture of 16 to 20 inches and with coronagraphic properties to block the light of stars and apply adaptive optics to emit robust signals.
The Project Blue mission follows the heightened quest of scientists in learning the mystery of planetary systems around Alpha Centauri's larger Sun-like stars such as Alpha Centauri A and B.
"There is an extremely high level of urgency and desire on the part of the astronomical community to get out there and find exoplanets that we can actually image and characterize around nearby stars," said Jon Morse, a project leader and BoldlyGo Institute's CEO.
The mission places priority on capturing images of "Earth-like" planets orbiting the bright stars' habitable zones and assessing for the presence of an atmosphere and liquid water on their surface.
The project leader claimed that Project Blue will have state-of-the-art exoplanet imaging telescope and advanced high contrast imaging technologies at work with a deformable mirror and specialized post-processing techniques.
Morse said that Alpha Centauri is the best target for direct imaging because of its unusual proximity of just 4.37 light years from the Earth. Moreover, the fact that it contains two stars made it ideal for the mission.
The organizers of the mission hope to capture a "blue dot" picture that may foretell the presence of oceans and atmosphere in the Alpha Centauri A and B system.
As has been known, Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system to the Sun. Already the discovery of an Earth-sized world in the habitable zone around Proxima Centauri has exacerbated that interest. The project has the University of Massachusetts Lowell as a key partner.
Mission Earth 2.0
In terms of specifics, the project will have two high-altitude balloon flights backed by NASA and a satellite with telescope between 2019 and 2022 for taking data.
"The approach here is not taking a very expensive project and removing things you don't need like sculptures do," noted Project Blue team member Supriya Chakrabarti, who is an astrophysicist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Project Blue's name was inspired by the famous Pale Blue Dot image taken by the Voyager two decades ago from a distance of 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth.