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A new search for more planets at Alpha Centauri

NEAR instrument at VLT
The NEAR instrument, shown here mounted on one of the telescopes at the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope facility, came into use with ESO’s VISIR imager and spectrometer on May 21. (ESO / NEAR Collaboration Photo)

The European Southern Observatory and the billionaire-backed Breakthrough Watch program say they have achieved first light with a new observing instrument designed to spot super-Earths in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our own.

The NEAR instrument, which takes its name from the acronym for “Near Earths in the AlphaCen Region,” has been installed on an 8-meter (26.2-foot) telescope that’s part of ESO’s Very Large Telescope facility in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

NEAR takes advantage of a thermal-infrared coronagraph to block out most of the light coming from the stars in the Alpha Centauri system, a little more than 4 light-years away – including the sunlike stars Alpha Centauri A and B, plus a red dwarf called Proxima Centauri.

Cutting down on that glare makes it easier for an infrared imaging spectrometer known as VISIR to pick up the warm glow of planets orbiting the stars. The upgraded instrumentation, which took three years to develop, should be capable of detecting worlds down to twice the size of Earth.

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Project Blue revives its planet quest

Project Blue telescope
An artist’s concept shows a preliminary design for the Project Blue telescope. (Project Blue via Vimeo)

Project Blue is launching a second try to attract crowdfunding for a space telescope designed to study planets in the Alpha Centauri system, months after the first try fizzled.

This time around, the BoldlyGo Institute and its Project Blue partners – including the SETI Institute, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and Mission Centaur – are aiming to raise a minimum of $175,000 through the Indiegogo crowdfunding website.

Whatever money they raise will go toward nailing down the requirements for the Project Blue mission and engaging with potential industry partners.

The mission’s objective is to look for potentially habitable planets around the Alpha Centauri double-star system.

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Tiny probes get tested for interstellar mission

Yuri Milner and Sprite
Russian billionaire Yuri Milner holds a “Sprite” mini-probe like the ones that are being tested in low Earth orbit. (Breakthrough Starshot via YouTube / SciNews)

Breakthrough Starshot says it’s been testing prototype interstellar spacecraft no bigger than postage stamps in orbit for the past month, and they seem to be working just fine.

Six of the 1.4-inch-square circuit boards, dubbed “Sprites,” were launched into low Earth orbit on June 23 as tiny piggyback payloads on two nanosatellites. Those educational satellites, Max Valier Sat and Venta 1, were developed with the aid of German-based OHB System and launched by an Indian PSLV rocket. (Seattle-based Spaceflight played a role in launch logistics.)

In a statement issued today, Breakthrough Starshot said the Sprites are still attached to the nanosatellites and are “performing as designed.” The Sprite radio communication system is in contact with ground stations in California and New York, as well as with amateur radio enthusiasts around the world.

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Here’s how to stop a speeding starship

Starshot mission
The aim of the Starshot project is to send a tiny spacecraft propelled by an enormous rectangular photon sail to the Alpha Centauri star system, as shown in this artist’s conception, (Planetary Habitability Laboratory, University of Puerto Rico at Arecibo)

Millions of dollars are being spent on a scheme to speed up swarms of tiny sail-equipped probes to 20 percent of the speed of light and send them past Alpha Centauri – but how do you slow them down again?

German researchers suggest using the same light sails that got the probes going so fast in the first place.

René Heller, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, and information technology specialist Michael Hippke worked out a plan could be factored into Breakthrough Starshot’s decades-long mission plan. The details are laid out today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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VLT joins search for Alpha Centauri’s planets

VLT and Alpha Centauri
The ESO’s Very Large Telescope looms in the foreground of this image, and a star map has been superimposed on the sky to show the locations of Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri. (ESO Photo)

One of the most powerful observing instruments on Earth, the Very Large Telescope, will join the search for potentially habitable planets around the Alpha Centauri star system.

The survey will take place in 2019 under the terms of an agreement signed by the European Southern Observatory, which operates the VLT in Chile, and by the Breakthrough Initiatives.

The Breakthrough Initiatives are funded by such luminaries as Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The effort includes in a radio search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, known as Breakthrough Listen; and a plan to send swarms of nano-probes through the Alpha Centauri system, known as Breakthrough Starshot.

For months, the Breakthrough team has been working out the details for a campaign to look for worlds around Alpha Centauri, informally known as Breakthrough Watch. Such observations would complement Breakthrough Starshot.

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Going to Alpha Centauri? Try antimatter

An artist’s conception shows a positron rocket engine. (Positronics Research via NASA)
An artist’s conception shows a positron rocket engine. (Positronics Research via NASA)

Project Blue’s scientists still have to raise more than $800,000 over the next 15 days to reach their initial crowdfunding goal for a mission to observe Alpha Centauri’s alien planets, but they’re already thinking about how future explorers could get there.

It would take tens of thousands of years to make the 4.37-light-year trip using the best rocket propulsion that’s available today.

But a video created by Speculative Films, with input from Project Blue as well as Positron Dynamics, focuses on how antimatter propulsion could reduce that travel time to 40 years.

Antimatter drives have been a science-fiction standby since the original “Star Trek” TV series. They’ve also been the subject of real-world research. Almost two decades ago, researchers were talking with NASA about an antimatter-driven sail that could send a spacecraft to Alpha Centauri in the 40-year time frame.

Positron Dynamics’ concept calls for cooling down a stream of positrons — the antimatter equivalent of electrons — and smashing them into a stream of electrons. Theoretically, that could produce enough oomph to accelerate a probe to more than one-tenth of the speed of light.

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Project Blue kicks off quest to seek alien Earths

Project Blue telescope
An artist’s concept shows Project Blue’s telescope monitoring Alpha Centauri. (Credit: Project Blue)

How much would you pay to find out whether Alpha Centauri’s twin suns possess blue planets like Earth?

Project Blue is hoping it’s at least $10, and maybe thousands of dollars. That’s the point behind the project’s Kickstarter campaign, which aims to raise at least $1 million for a space telescope specifically designed to look closely at the Alpha Centauri system.

The runt of the Alpha Centauri family, a red dwarf known as Proxima Centauri, already has made its mark as the closest star with a potentially habitable planet. But Jon Morse, a former NASA executive who now leads the Project Blue team, argues that his project could cause even more of a splash.

“If we find something, there’s going to be huge interest in doing more with those planets in the future,” he told GeekWire.

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