A Space Telescope With one job: Find Habitable Planets at Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to our Sun, is like a treasure trove with many scientific discoveries just waiting to be found. Part of what makes it so compelling is that our efforts to detect extrasolar planets there have failed to yield any concrete results to date. While the study of exoplanets has progressed exponentially in recent years, with 4,575 confirmed planets in 3,392 systems in the Milky Way (and even neighboring galaxies), astronomers are still having difficulty determining if anyone is next door.

In the coming decades, Breakthrough Initiatives plans to send a mission there known as Starshot, a lightsail craft that could make the journey in 20 years. On Nov. 16th, Breakthrough Initiatives announced another project for detecting exoplanets next door. It’s called the Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighbourhood (TOLIMAN), a space telescope dedicated to finding rocky planets orbiting in Alpha Centauri’s circumsolar habitable zone (aka. “Goldilocks Zone”).

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Maybe There’s No Way to Tell if Habitable Planets Orbit Proxima Centauri… Yet!

Our closest stellar neighbor is Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located over 4.24 light-years away (part of the Alpha Centauri trinary system). In 2016, the astronomical community was astounded to learn that an Earth-like planet orbited within this star’s circumsolar habitable zone (HZ). In addition to being the closest exoplanet to Earth, Proxima b was also considered the most promising place to look for extraterrestrial life for a time.

Unfortunately, the scientific community has been divided on whether or not life could even be possible on this planet. All of these studies indicate that this question cannot be answered until astronomers characterize Proxima b’s atmosphere, ideally by observing it as it passes in front (aka. transited) of its host star. But in a new NASA-supported study, a team led by astrophysicists at the University of Chicago determined that this is an unlikely possibility.

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The Radio Signal From Proxima Centauri Came From Earth After All

Turns out we were hearing ourselves! Earth can be a noisy place when listening to stars.

Late last year, a story was leaked indicating that the Murriyang radio telescope in Australia had detected a “signal-of-interest”. Dubbed “blc1” (Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1), the signal appeared to originate from the direction of Proxima Centauri, the closest neighbouring star to the Sun. The signal had yet to be fully analyzed when the story was leaked. Now that the analysis is complete, research shows blc1 is in fact “RFI” – radio frequency interference – and not an interstellar signal.

But while it’s not aliens – or “Proxima Centaurians” as lead author on the signal analysis Dr. Sofia Sheikh whimsically refers to them – new methodologies for conducting radio-based SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) have been developed by analyzing blc1; further honing our ability to distinguish future potential ET signals from our own planet.

Simulation of Proxima Centauri b , Rocky World in the Proxima Centauri System – SpaceEngine by author
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Avoiding the Great Filter. How Long Until We’re Living Across the Solar System?

If you’re a fan of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) and the Fermi Paradox, then it’s likely you’ve heard of a concept known as the Great Filter. In brief, it states that life in the Universe may be doomed to extinction, either as a result of cataclysmic events or due to circumstances of its own making (i.e., nuclear war, climate change, etc.) In recent years, it has been the subject of a lot of talk and speculation, and not just in academic circles.

Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have also weighed in on the issue, claiming that humanity’s only chance at long-term survival is to become “interplanetary.” Addressing this very possibility, a research team led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) recently created a timeline for potential human expansion beyond Earth. According to their findings, we have the potential of going interplanetary by the end of the century and intragalactic by the end of the 24th!

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A Recent Megaflare Shows that Proxima Centauri is not a Nice Place to Live

Proxima b, the closest exoplanet to our Solar System, has been a focal point of scientific study since it was first confirmed (in 2016). This terrestrial planet (aka. rocky) orbits Proxima Centauri, an M-type (red dwarf) star located 4.2 light-years beyond our Solar System – and is a part of the Alpha Centauri system. In addition to its proximity and rocky composition, it is also located within its parent star’s habitable zone (HZ).

Until a mission can be sent to this planet (such as Breakthrough Starshot), astrobiologists are forced to postulate about the possibility that life could exist there. Unfortunately, an international campaign that monitored Proxima Centauri for months using nine space- and ground-based telescopes recently spotted an extreme flare coming from the star, one which would have rendered Proxima b uninhabitable.

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A Review of “Extraterrestrial” by Prof. Avi Loeb

On October 19th, 2017, astronomers from the Haleakala Observatory in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar object in our Solar System. In honor of the observatory that first spotted it, this object (designated 1I/2017 U1) was officially named ‘Oumuamua by the IAU – a Hawaiian term loosely translated as “Scout” (or, “a messenger from afar arriving first.”)

Multiple follow-up observations were made as ‘Oumuamua left our Solar System and countless research studies resulted. For the most part, these studies addressed the mystery of what ‘Oumuamua truly was: a comet, an asteroid, or something else entirely? Into this debate, Dr. Shmuel Bialy and Prof. Avi Loeb of the Harvard Institute for Theory and Computation (ITC) argued that ‘Oumuamua could have been an extraterrestrial probe!

Having spent the past few years presenting this controversial theory before the scientific and astronomical community, Prof. Loeb has since shared the story of how he came to it in his new book, Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth. The book is a seminal read, addresses the mystery of ‘Oumuamua, and (most importantly) urges readers to take seriously the possibility that an extraterrestrial encounter took place

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According to the Math, it’s Highly Unlikely That an Intelligent Civilization is Located at Alpha Centauri

In December of 2020, the world got a bit of a pre-holiday surprise when it was announced that astronomers at the Parkes radio telescope in Australia had detected a “tantalizing” signal coming from Proxima Centauri (the red dwarf companion of the Alpha Centauri system). Afterward, researchers at Breakthrough Listen consulted the data on the signal – Breakthrough Listen Candidate 1 (BLC1) – and noted the same curious features.

However, the scientific community has since announced that the signal is unlikely to be anything other than the result of natural phenomena. This was also the conclusion reached by Amir Siraj and Prof. Abraham Loeb of Harvard University after they conducted a probability assessment on BLC1. Like the vast majority of candidate radio signals discovered to date, this one appears to be just the forces of nature saying hello.

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A Very Interesting Radio Signal was Just Detected Coming from Proxima Centauri

There’s a powerful scene in the movie “Contact” (one of my favs) where lead character Ellie Arroway is sitting among an array of telescopes and hears the first alien signal – an ominous pulse – received by humanity. She races back to the control center where the array is pointed off target and then back to verify the signal. Contact is made. Shortly after, a message is found in the signal and we’ve confirmed the existence of alien life!

Ellie Arroway was inspired by a real-life pillar of the SETI community, Dr. Jill Tarter. I had the privilege of interviewing Jill Tarter last year and asked about that scene. She laughed saying “There’s not a lot of sitting around with headphones on. It’s not really that simple.” When it comes to analyzing signals from the stars for alien life, distinguishing a potential alien message from the noise of our own planet is quite complicated.

Excitingly, we’re watching that analysis play out right now as a signal which appears to originate from our closest neighbour star, Proxima Centauri, was recently detected by the Breakthrough Listen Project

Simulation of Proxima b, a known planet in the habitable zone of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri – SpaceEngine Pro by author
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New Horizons is so Far From Earth That the Positions of the Stars Look a Little Different From its Perspective

In July of 2015, the New Horizons spacecraft made history when it became the first robotic explorer to conduct a flyby of Pluto. This was followed by another first, when the NASA mission conducted the first flyby of a Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) on December 31st, 2018 – which has since been named Arrokoth. Now, on the edge of the Solar System, New Horizons is still yielding some groundbreaking views of the cosmos.

For example, we here on Earth are used to thinking that the positions of the stars are “fixed”. In a sense, they are, since their positions and motions are relatively uniform when seen from our perspective. But a recent experiment conducted by the New Horizons team shows how familiar stars like Proxima Centauri and Wolf 359 (two of the closest stars in our neighbors) look different when viewed from the edge of the Solar System.

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