New mission to search for signs of alien life in Alpha Centauri

"Modern satellite technology will allow us to explore our celestial backyard."
Chris Young
Alpha Centauri A and B captured by Hubble.
Alpha Centauri A and B captured by Hubble.


The University of Sydney and Bulgarian aerospace manufacturer EnduroSat have teamed up to search for alien life in our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri.

The new mission was dubbed TOLIMAN after the star's ancient Arabic name. It was backed by Breakthrough Initiatives, which is also responsible for a mission that aims to one day send a light sail probe to the star system.

The plan for the TOLIMAN mission is to search for planets in the habitable zone around two Sun-like stars in the system, Alpha Centauri A and B, which are located four light-years from Earth.

New state-of-the-art micro-satellite to peer into Alpha Centauri

The new mission will rely greatly on new satellite advances that will allow micro-satellites to image our nearest star system.

Alpha Centauri is "tantalizingly close to home," explained mission leader Professor Peter Tuthill from the University of Sydney, who has also worked on designing the NIRISS Aperture Masking Interferometry mode for James Webb. "Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets outside our own solar system but most are thousands of light years away and beyond our reach."

"Modern satellite technology will allow us to explore our celestial backyard and perhaps lay the groundwork for visionary future missions spanning the interstellar voids to the Centauri system."

The beam behind the TOLIMAN mission is developing a small custom-designed space telescope capable of taking incredibly precise readings. It will have to fit the telescope within a limited volume of just 12 liters while maintaining its thermal and mechanical stability. EnduroSat, meanwhile, will develop the delivery system for the custom-built minisatellite.

Looking for signs of life in Alpha Centauri

Ultimately, TOLIMAN is a pathfinder mission, meaning it will seek to detect habitable exoplanets that can then be viewed in more detail using more powerful observatories.

"Any exoplanets we find that close to Earth can be followed up with other instruments, giving excellent prospects for discovering and analyzing atmospheres, surface chemistry, or even fingerprints of a biosphere – the tentative signs of life," explained Professor Tuthill from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy and School of Physics in a press statement.

Breakthrough Initiatives has backed the TOLIMAN project, and it has a long-standing interest in Alpha Centauri. The organization, co-founded by Russian-born philanthropist Yuri Milner, also started Breakthrough Starshot, a $100 million initiative aimed at developing a light sail probe that's accelerated to incredibly high speeds by lasers, allowing it to reach Proxima Centauri, also known as Alpha Centauri C, in as little as 20 years.

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