Colonisation of space now closer as scientists begin search for habitable planet

The colonisation of space is one step closer as scientists have begun working on their search for a habitable planet in a separate star system.

So far planets have been found orbiting Proxima Centauri, but experts from the University of Sydney and Breakthrough Initiatives believe they will find a world orbiting the larger binary pair of Alpha Centauri AB – our closest star system – using a new telescope known as the Toliman mission.

The mission will launch in 2023 and will scan for worlds in the habitable zone, where liquid water can flow on the surface.

It is a new approach to exoplanet discovery (discovery of a planet outside our solar system), creating a telescope to focus on the nearest star systems, looking for potentially habitable worlds, instead of just any world.

Alpha Centauri is a triple star system (A, B and C) just over four light-years away from the Earth, with the team hoping to be able to say whether there are habitable worlds orbiting either or both of the binary stars (A and B) by the middle of the decade.

Professor Peter Tuthill, project leader from the University of Sydney, told the Daily Mail there was a 30% chance of finding at least one planet orbiting Alpha Centauri AB.

He said: “There are a few unknowns that the present state of astronomy knowledge are not yet up to answering.

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“I think taking a moderately pessimistic case, then there is at least, say a 30% chance of at least one planet, and the more optimistic forecasts predict several planets.

“The problem here is the binary star [Alpha Centauri AB], as nobody really knows what the implications of that are, so these numbers are under debate.”

The telescope uses a diffractive pupil lens – a mirror that spreads starlight captured from nearby stars into a complex flower-like pattern.

This pattern makes it easier to detect perturbances of star movements that are the tell-tale signs of orbiting planets.

Dr Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives, said: “The Toliman mission will be a huge step towards finding out if planets capable of supporting life exist there.

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

The team believe that either or both of the two stars in Alpha Centauri AB may host temperate planets – those with flowing water that could host life.

Most of the thousands of known planets outside the solar system have been discovered using space telescopes such as NASA's Kepler and TESS missions.

Finding exoplanets close to home will take more finely tuned instruments, which is where the Toliman mission comes in.

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