TOLIMAN Space Telescope Will Look for Potentially Habitable Exoplanets in Alpha Centauri System

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Astronomers from the University of Sydney, the Breakthrough Initiative, Saber Aeronautics and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory announced this week the TOLIMAN (Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighbourhood) mission, which will look for planets in the habitable zone around stars in the triple-star system Alpha Centauri. Toliman is also the Arabic-derived name of Alpha Centauri.

This image shows the closest stellar system to the Sun, the bright double star Alpha Centauri AB and its distant and faint companion Proxima Centauri. Image credit: ESO / B. Tafreshi, twanight.org / Digitized Sky Survey 2 / Davide De Martin / Mahdi Zamani.

This image shows the closest stellar system to the Sun, the bright double star Alpha Centauri AB and its distant and faint companion Proxima Centauri. Image credit: ESO / B. Tafreshi, twanight.org / Digitized Sky Survey 2 / Davide De Martin / Mahdi Zamani.

Alpha Centauri, also known as Rigil Kentaurus, Rigil Kent and Gliese 559, is located in the constellation of Centaurus.

This triple system is made up of the bright binary star formed by Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, plus the faint red dwarf Alpha Centauri C.

The two brighter components are roughly 4.35 light years away from Earth. Alpha Centauri C, better known as Proxima Centauri, is slightly closer at 4.23 light years.

Compared to the Sun, Alpha Centauri A is of the same stellar type G2, and slightly bigger. Alpha Centauri B, a K1-type star, is slightly smaller and less bright.

Alpha Centauri A and B orbit a common center of gravity once every 80 years, with a minimum distance of about 11 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.

Three planets are currently known in the Alpha Centauri system: a warm sub-Neptune around Alpha Centauri A and two planets — Earth-mass Proxima b and much massive Proxima c — around Proxima Centauri.

The proposed TOLIMAN space telescope with a candidate telescope mirror pattern known as a diffractive pupil. Rather than concentrating the starlight into a tight focused beam as is usually done for optical systems, TOLIMAN has a strongly featured pattern, spreading starlight into a complex flower pattern that, paradoxically, makes it easier to register the fine detail required in the measurement to detect the small wobbles a planet would make in the star’s motion. Image credit: Tuthill et al., doi: 10.1117/12.2313269.

The proposed TOLIMAN space telescope with a candidate telescope mirror pattern known as a diffractive pupil. Rather than concentrating the starlight into a tight focused beam as is usually done for optical systems, TOLIMAN has a strongly featured pattern, spreading starlight into a complex flower pattern that, paradoxically, makes it easier to register the fine detail required in the measurement to detect the small wobbles a planet would make in the star’s motion. Image credit: Tuthill et al., doi: 10.1117/12.2313269.

“Our nearest stellar neighbors — the Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri systems — are turning out to be extraordinarily interesting,” said Dr. Pete Worden, executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives.

“The TOLIMAN mission will be a huge step towards finding out if planets capable of supporting life exist there.”

“Astronomers have access to amazing technologies that allow us to find thousands of planets circling stars across vast reaches of the Galaxy. Yet we hardly know anything about our own celestial backyard,” added TOLIMAN project leader Professor Peter Tuthill, an astronomer in the Sydney Institute for Astronomy at the University of Sydney.

“It is a modern problem to have; we are like net-savvy urbanites whose social media connections are global, but we don’t know anyone living on our own block. This blind spot in our local knowledge has important consequences.”

“Getting to know our planetary neighbors is hugely important,” he added.

“These next-door planets are the ones where we have the best prospects for finding and analyzing atmospheres, surface chemistry and possibly even the fingerprints of a biosphere — the tentative signals of life.”

“These nearby planets are where humanity will take our first steps into interstellar space using high-speed, futuristic, robotic probes,” said Pete Klupar, chief engineer of Breakthrough Watch.

“If we consider the nearest few dozen stars, we expect a handful of rocky planets like Earth orbiting at the right distance for liquid surface water to be possible.”

A simulated image of Alpha Centauri AB as observed in narrowband light through the TOLIMAN telescope. Image credit: Tuthill et al., doi: 10.1117/12.2313269.

A simulated image of Alpha Centauri AB as observed in narrowband light through the TOLIMAN telescope. Image credit: Tuthill et al., doi: 10.1117/12.2313269.

“TOLIMAN is a mission that Australia should be very proud of — it is an exciting, bleeding-edge space telescope supplied by an exceptional international collaboration. It will be a joy to fly this bird,” said Dr. Jason Held, CEO of Saber Astronautics.

“Even for the very nearest bright stars in the night sky, finding planets is a huge technological challenge,” said TOLIMAN team member Dr. Eduardo Bendek, a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“Our TOLIMAN mission will launch a custom-designed space telescope that makes extremely fine measurements of the position of the star in the sky. If there is a planet orbiting the star, it will tug on the star betraying a tiny, but measurable, wobble.”

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Peter Tuthill et al. 2018. The TOLIMAN space telescope. Proc. SPIE 10701, Optical and Infrared Interferometry and Imaging VI, 107011J; doi: 10.1117/12.2313269

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