Could a crowdfunded telescope find an Earth-like planet?

Project Blue – an effort to capture an image of the planets around the double suns of Alpha Centauri – is turning to Kickstarter to begin raising money for its space telescope.

European Southern Observatory/AP
This artist's rendering, provided by the European Southern Observatory, shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System. The double star Alpha Centauri AB also appears in the image to the upper-right of Proxima itself.

By December 21, crowdfunding site Kickstarter hopes to take one campaign to outer space – literally. A campaign by a group of scientists could help create the world’s first crowdfunded telescope.

The project, called Project Blue by its creators – scientists at the SETI Institute, the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and BoldlyGo, among others – would allow scientists to take cosmic discovery to the next level.

Project leaders hope to use the telescope to capture a images of any potentially Earth-like planets in the star system Alpha Centuri, which is close (cosmically speaking) to our own solar system.

“We started this campaign with the belief that together, people all over the world could push the boundaries of discovery in space, and possibly achieve one of the greatest milestones of human exploration,” wrote Project Blue organizers on the telescope’s Kickstarter page.

“The goal is simple: to capture an image, visible to the human eye, of orbiting planets. Seeing a 'pale blue dot' could indicate the presence of oceans or an atmosphere — the potential to support life. It would be our first view of another world like our own. With a modest budget and a planned launch by 2020, this goal is tantalizingly close.”

Ninety-four backers have contributed more than $15,000 to the Kickstarter campaign thus far. The project hopes to raise at least a million dollars to help them towards their goal.

“We are seeking to take another pale blue-dot image,” said Jon Morse, the current chief executive of the BoldlyGo Institute. “This is the holy grail of exoplanet research.”

The original pale blue dot image was taken by NASA’s Voyager 1 mission. The scientists behind Planet Blue say that most NASA missions have broader goals than does theirs, and that if Planet Blue is to succeed, it must be through separate funding channels.

Mr. Morse says that the power of crowdfunding is that it is inclusive – everyday people can participate in building the telescope that could make the next big cosmic discovery. Using a mirror configuration, the telescope would even be able to spot a tiny planet sandwiched between two bright stars.

Project Blue plans to build an inexpensive telescope, and quickly, with an expected launch date of 2019. The telescope would be in space for about two years, perhaps a little more, between 2019 and 2022.

When Project Blue officials announced their idea in October, they estimated the total cost would run between $10 and $50 million. Kickstarter estimates about $30 million.

The relatively small fundraising goal on Project Blue’s Kickstarter page – $1 million – would be devoted to foundational design and analysis. Additional funds would go towards the stretch goals of testing the coronagraph at the heart of their telescope, finishing all design elements, starting construction, and supporting student involvement in the mission.

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