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Private money to VLT to search for Earthlike planets at Alpha Centauri

The privately funded Breakthrough Initiatives project has committed funds to upgrade the Very Large Telescope in Chile in exchange for telescope time to look for Earthlike planets in orbit around Alpha Centauri.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking are hoping to find Earth-like planets in our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri. Together they will upgrade the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to look for potentially habitable worlds as part of the ‘Breakthrough’ initiatives.

These planets could be the targets for a launch of tiny space probes to track down aliens within our lifetimes, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said.

This is exactly how astronomy used to function. Rather than get money from the government in exchange for doing the research it wanted done, astronomers obtained funds from wealthy individuals or businesses to build and upgrade their telescopes in exchange for doing the research that interested these funding sources. The difference? The work was privately funded voluntarily, rather than coerced from the public through taxes.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • ken anthony

    It seems so ironic. If they found mars around a near star it would be a major headline.

    Perhaps some believe it’s better to have a well funded non reachable goal?

  • Edward

    ken anthony wrote: “Perhaps some believe it’s better to have a well funded non reachable goal?

    Perhaps non-reachable today, but once we are colonizing the Moon and Mars, wouldn’t it be nice to have something to aspire to?

  • ken anthony

    wouldn’t it be nice to have something to aspire to?

    Sure, if it’s not just an excuse to do nothing.

    It strikes me as funny that those that imagine going to other stars consider mars colonization as too hard!

    This is why we’ve been stuck going in circles for 50 years.

  • Edward

    ken anthony,
    We’ve been going in circles for 50 years because we let government make all our decisions about space.

    Oh, wait. That’s what you meant.

  • LocalFluff

    It will take centuries to send any probe to another star. So no time to lose! Let’s get working on it! With Earth based propulsion (a laser gun) the rocket equation becomes irrelevant. What’s the next easy problem to solve?

  • Edward

    LocalFluff asked: “What’s the next easy problem to solve?”

    Making the laser gun, the solar sail, and the payload.

  • LocalFluff

    @Edward, the Solar sail seems to be the next big problem. It has to be totally reflective in order to not vaporize. But advances in photonics (like Solar panels, LED, optronics, astronomical instruments) is on a fast track. As is super precision engineering as the LIGO gravitational wave observatories have demonstrated in the most amazing way already. The Starshot initiative is surprisingly feasible. More so than for example a space elevator on Earth.

    Maybe a light sail turns out to be impossible to make, but it is certainly worth trying until so has been concluded. Now it is open for research. Tiny probes might fly by the nearest star before this century ends.

  • Alex

    @LocalFLuff: An alternative to laser light are micro-waves. A mesh of thin wires is sufficient to reflect the micro-waves. Production of micro-waces is also much cheaper compared to laser.

  • Edward

    LocalFluff wrote: “It has to be totally reflective in order to not vaporize.”

    Not necessarily 100% reflectivity. The sail may be thin enough to allow some light to pass through, thicker material may reduce the acceleration due to the mass increasing faster than the propulsive force increases. Thicker material may also increase the thermal absorption.

    Thermal control can be performed in a variety of ways. An effective way is to adjust the laser energy directed toward the sail; too much and the sail melts, not enough and you lose valuable acceleration. Whiskers grown on the opposite side of the sail could aid in radiating away heat energy.

    There have been several tests of solar sails, including on-orbit tests and an interplanetary test with the IKAROS, flown by Japan. Deployment and attitude control have been the main points of research, but as these are being worked out, actual propulsion tests seem to be the new phase of development.

    As the article mentions in four sentences, Breakthrough Initiatives plans to test the idea of sending nanosats to Alpha Centauri in a flyby mission.

    A little more detail here:
    $100 million research and engineering program will seek proof of concept for using light beam to propel gram-scale ‘nanocraft’ to 20 percent of light speed. A possible fly-by mission could reach Alpha Centauri within about 20 years of its launch.

    As Robert stated, individuals are getting back into the business/hobby/charity of funding science. Many of our early observatories and telescopes were funded by individuals. As with rocketry and spacecraft, we Americans have grown weary of waiting for government to do what we want.

    When you let government make all the decisions, they will do what they want, not what we want. Governments have a condescending attitude when it comes to their citizens; in the movie “The Giver,” the chief government official said, “When people have the freedom to choose, they choose wrong. Every single time.

    What government considers to be wrong is what We the People wanted in the first place. According to We the People, those for whom the government is supposed to work, the government chooses wrong. Every single time. Since government is supposed to represent We the People, it is we who are right, not the tyranny-aspiring government or its ruling class.

    Power to We the People! Go Zuckerberg, Milner, and Hawking.

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