The Breakthrough Foundation, led by Yuri Milner, is funding phase two of the TOLIMAN mission. This pioneering space telescope program aims to discover habitable planets around Alpha Centauri, Earth’s nearest neighboring star system. The foundation supports scientific enterprises and is committed to advancing research and space exploration. Yuri Milner and his wife Julia established the foundation after a philanthropic pledge in 2012. Yuri Milner is also the author of the book Eureka Manifesto: The Mission for Our Civilization. The Breakthrough Watch initiative offers an exciting opportunity to explore Alpha Centauri and make groundbreaking discoveries in the search for habitable worlds.
The TOLIMAN Mission: Hunting for Exoplanets
Back in 2019, the Breakthrough Initiatives made an exciting announcement. They pledged their support for a groundbreaking project focused on discovering exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system. This ambitious endeavor involves the creation, construction, and launch of a cutting-edge space telescope called TOLIMAN. It is named after the ancient Arabic designation for the star Alpha Centauri B.
The TOLIMAN is to deploy a specialized space telescope capable of pinpointing the precise positions of stars with exceptional precision. This innovative technology will revolutionize our ability to observe and measure celestial bodies.
In April 2021, the TOLIMAN mission took off under the leadership of the University of Sydney. This remarkable project involves close collaboration between the University of Sydney’s scientists and other esteemed partners. These include the Breakthrough Initiatives team in California, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and Saber Astronautics in Australia. Together, they are at the forefront of this extraordinary endeavor, pushing the boundaries of exploration and discovery.
Venturing into uncharted territory, they strive to unlock the secrets of the Alpha Centauri system and shed light on the mysteries of our astronomical neighborhood. This mission marks a significant milestone in our quest to expand our knowledge of the cosmos.
What Are the Breakthrough Initiatives?
The Breakthrough Initiatives are a group of space science programs dedicated to exploring the profound questions of life in the Universe. They seek to understand if intelligent life exists beyond Earth and locate potentially habitable planets nearby. Furthermore, they aim to achieve interstellar travel and foster global unity in the cosmos.
Thanks to the funding from founders Julia and Yuri Milner, the Breakthrough Initiatives have partnered with renowned observatories and telescopes worldwide. Together, they search for signs of extraterrestrial life and habitable worlds. Notable programs include Breakthrough Listen, Breakthrough Starshot, and Breakthrough Watch.
What Is Breakthrough Watch’s Mission?
Breakthrough Watch embarks on the crucial task of identifying and characterizing Earth-like planets in our cosmic neighborhood. It aims to determine their potential for supporting life. Through its multimillion-dollar astronomical program, it provides financial support. Plus, also drives the development of cutting-edge Earth- and space-based technologies by the TOLIMAN project.
With a primary focus on Alpha Centauri, Breakthrough Watch casts its gaze towards other stars within a 20-light-year radius of our planet, expanding the scope of its exploration.
Once an exoplanet is discovered by the Breakthrough Initiative, the diligent Watch team endeavors to detect telltale signs of oxygen—a vital clue. The presence of oxygen and other “biosignatures” becomes a strong indicator that the planet may harbor primitive forms of life, heightening its candidacy as a potential host.
Why Search for Exoplanets So Close to Earth?
While astronomers have used advanced technologies to discover thousands of planets across the furthest reaches of our galaxy, we know little about our “celestial backyard.”
TOLIMAN project leader Professor Peter Tuthill, from the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA) at the University of Sydney, describes this as a blind spot in our knowledge of the cosmos.
“We are like net-savvy urbanites whose social media connections are global, but we don’t know anyone living on our own block,” Tuthill explains.
However, familiarizing ourselves with our planetary neighbors is crucial if we are to advance the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). These close planets give us the best chances of discovering biosignatures and evidence of alien life.
What’s Unique About Alpha Centauri?
At a distance of 4.376 light-years, the star system Alpha Centauri is our nearest cosmic neighbor. Alpha Centauri consists of three stars: Rigil Kentaurus, Toliman, and Proxima Centauri (the closest star to our Sun).
The Breakthrough Initiatives have an established interest in Alpha Centauri. The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is currently developing a light sail probe for a proposed mission to Proxima Centauri.
The $100 million project hopes to take advantage of advances in miniaturization, specialized materials, and directed-energy propulsion to complete the flyby mission within a single lifetime (20 years).
Despite its proximity to Earth, astronomical surveys have struggled to discover conclusive proof of exoplanets in Alpha Centauri. Rigil Kentaurus and Toliman form the binary star system Alpha Centauri AB, which makes detecting exoplanets through traditional methods (like the transit and radial velocity methods) challenging.
In 2016, the Pale Red Dot team at the European Southern Observatory discovered Proxima b, an Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri. Astronomers are currently disputing the existence of another recently discovered exoplanet candidate, Proxima c.
How Will TOLIMAN Advance the Search for Nearby Exoplanets?
TOLIMAN will take a new approach to nearby exoplanet discovery that uses the astrometry method.
While conventional telescopes concentrate starlight into a focused beam, TOLIMAN features a diffractive pupil that distributes starlight into a complex, flower-like pattern. This pattern allows for incredibly fine measurements of a star’s motion. Small disturbances of a star’s movements are unmistakable signs of an orbiting planet applying gravitational forces.
TOLIMAN will focus its search on the “Goldilocks zones” of stars. The temperatures in these zones may permit the existence of liquid water on rocky planets, similar to Earth.
Tuthill explains that any exoplanets TOLIMAN finds will be the subjects of follow-up studies that will analyze “atmospheres, surface chemistry, or even fingerprints of a biosphere — the tentative signs of life.”
Detecting planets so close to Earth could inspire further interstellar missions to Alpha Centauri. Dr. S. Pete Worden is the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and the executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives. He emphasizes that projects like TOLIMAN can help us “make real progress on understanding the planetary systems right next door.”
TOLIMAN Phase Two
Almost two years have passed since the initiation of the TOLIMAN mission, and now Breakthrough Watch is poised to support its next phase. Moreover, this second phase will encompass crucial activities such as spacecraft design, construction, and integration with the telescope. In this endeavor, a collaborative effort between Breakthrough Watch, the University of Sydney, and EnduroSat—an aerospace manufacturer from Bulgaria—will take place.
Additionally, EnduroSat will play a vital role in providing TOLIMAN’s delivery system, along with a custom minisatellite, to facilitate the mission’s launch. The remarkable MicroSat design from EnduroSat enables payload data downloads at an impressive rate exceeding 125 megabits per second. This capability holds great significance for a continuous observation mission like TOLIMAN, which necessitates frequent data retrieval.
Despite acknowledging the enormous challenges, EnduroSat’s Founder and CEO, Raycho Raychev, maintains an optimistic outlook. He recognizes that the project will push his company’s engineering efforts to their limits. However, he believes that this pioneering exploration science endeavor will pave the way for future low-cost astronomy missions.
Professor Peter Tuthill, involved in the TOLIMAN project, highlights the significance of its innovative design, incorporating new strategies to overcome obstacles. While the challenges are not underestimated, the mission’s agility and cost-effectiveness offer promise. Anticipating results by the mid-2020s, Tuthill expresses hope for the successful delivery of groundbreaking outcomes.
Discover more about the trailblazing endeavors of Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough Initiatives and their pursuit of scientific advancement.
About Yuri Milner
Yuri Milner is an Israeli technology investor and science philanthropist. He is the founder of DST Global, a leading technology venture capital firm. DST Global’s portfolio has included prominent internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, and Spotify.
In 2012, the Milners joined Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates’ Giving Pledge. The Giving Pledge encourages the world’s most affluent individuals and families to allocate the majority of their wealth to charitable endeavors.
Milner began his career as a theoretical physicist, and science is still his primary area of interest. As a result, the Milners’ Giving Pledge centers mainly on scientific programs like the Breakthrough Initiatives and the Breakthrough Prize.
As the world’s largest scientific award, the Breakthrough Prize honors ground-breaking achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics.
In 2015, along with Stephen Hawking, Milner announced the launch of the Breakthrough Initiatives. The programs focus primarily on space exploration and SETI.
With a commitment of $100 million, Breakthrough Listen has revitalized the search for advanced alien civilizations. Moreover, Breakthrough Starshot, established in partnership with Professor Hawking in 2016, seeks to design a novel technology for uncrewed interstellar voyages.
Milner advocates for global investment in space exploration and the fundamental sciences in his short book Eureka Manifesto. Published in 2021, Eureka Manifesto puts forward a shared mission for humanity: to explore and understand our Universe. Eureka Manifesto is available to read online for free.