Images of the Alpha Centauri system in optical and X-Ray. Credit: NASA

New Telescope Will Look For Alien Life In Nearby Solar Systems

Scientists are developing a new type of telescope to detect Earth-like planets in nearby star systems. It will produce a new kind of images that will allow scientists to detect even the slightest vibrations of stars.

Astronomers have announced the creation of a new space telescope to search for habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system, the Sun’s closest neighbor. Specialists from various institutes and agencies will take part in the project – Sydney University, NASA, the company Saber Astronautics and the Breakthrough Initiatives program, founded by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.


Name and features

The mission was named TOLIMAN (Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighborhood). A distinctive feature of the telescope will be a very narrowly formulated task: the search for small rocky planets in the habitable zone. So astronomers will designate a zone around a star where conditions on the planet will be close to those on Earth and will be able to ensure the existence of liquid water, and therefore life. The key parameters for this are the brightness of the luminary and the distance to it.

Instruments and features of the TOLIMAN telescope. Credit: University of Sydney
Instruments and features of the TOLIMAN telescope. Credit: University of Sydney

Modern telescopes cannot take direct images of small planets

Modern telescopes do not yet provide a direct image of small (compared to gas giants) exoplanets, since they are too dim against the background of a bright star. They are detected by indirect methods, mainly by small changes in brightness when the planet passes between the star and the observer, and by the oscillations of the star from gravitational interaction.

Diffractive pupil lens

Therefore, TOLIMAN will receive a unique diffractive pupil lens. Unlike a conventional lens, which is designed for the sharpest possible image, TOLIMAN lenses focus the starlight in a flower-like pattern. Such images can hardly be called high-quality, but it is the changes in the diffraction pattern that will make it possible to detect the slightest vibrations of the star.

A simulated image of the Alpha Centaury system as it would look like with the TOLIMAN telescope. Credit: Peter Tuthill
A simulated image of the Alpha Centaury system as it would look like with the TOLIMAN telescope. Credit: Peter Tuthill

How will it benefit future astronomical observations?

In turn, it is this tremor that will allow astronomers to “see” the planet, since, in fact, the planets do not revolve around the stars, but together they revolve around a common center of mass. It is often located inside the star, but not in its very center. The use of this technology eliminates the need to make the TOLIMAN telescope large. The goal is to launch this mission with the smallest possible budget.

The focus will be Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri is 4.36 light-years from Earth and is composed of three stars. Two of them, Centauri A and Centauri B, are quite large and similar to the Sun, but due to their close location, they are perceived by the naked eye as one star. The third component, Proxima Centauri, is a red dwarf orbiting the main pair 300 times the distance between the Sun and Pluto. It is believed that two Earth-like planets revolve around Proxima Centauri.

The Alpha Centauri system as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA
The Alpha Centauri system as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Types of planets

Recently, scientists are more and more inclined to believe that not only earth-like planets can be viable. Astrobiologists consider the icy satellites of giant planets, primarily Enceladus, to be the most promising place for the search for life in the solar system outside the Earth. Although they don’t get enough light, they have an inner ocean that is warm from tidal and radiogenic heating.

Life beyond Earth

Moreover, water is not the only possible solvent for life. Rivers of methane and ethane flow across Titan and collect in the seas. For their research, scientists proposed to send there an “aircraft carrier” with a swarm of drones on board.


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Sources:

Breakthrough Initiatives. (n.d.). THE WORLDS NEXT DOOR: LOOKING FOR HABITABLE PLANETS AROUND ALPHA CENTAURI.
Fuge, L. (2021, November 16). Aussie telescope to find exoplanets around alpha centauri. Cosmos Magazine.
O’Callaghan, J. (2021, November 17). Scientists plan private mission to hunt for earths around alpha centauri. Scientific American.
Pultarova, T. (2021, November 16). Is there life at Alpha Centauri? New Space Telescope to seek out habitable planets around Sun’s neighboring star. Space.com.
Rabie, P. (2021, November 19). A new telescope may finally find a livable planet around nearby Alpha Centauri. Inverse.
The University of Sydney. (n.d.). Worlds next door: Looking for habitable planets at Alpha Centauri.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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