New mission will search for life in the Alpha Centauri system

Using the method of astrometry, monitoring the apparent position of a star in the sky for signs of wobble, indicating that gravitational forces (such as planets) are acting on it, the University of Sydney sets out to find exoplanets with life in the Alpha Centauri system. For that, they will use the Telescope for the Locus Orbit Interferometric Monitoring of our Astronomical Neighborhood (TOLIMAN, for the old name of the star in Arabic) and also a contract was signed with EnduroSat, a leading provider of microsatellites and space services, to provide the delivery system and the custom mini-satellite that will support the mission when it launches.

Alfa Centauri es nuestro vecino estelar más cercano, un sistema estelar binario ubicado a solo 4.376 años luz de distancia. A pesar de su proximidad, repetidos estudios astronómicos no han podido encontrar pruebas sólidas de planetas extrasolares en este sistema.

Alpha Centauri is our nearest stellar neighbor, a binary star system located just 4,376 light-years away. Despite its proximity, repeated astronomical surveys have been unable to find strong evidence for extrasolar planets in this system.

Alpha Centauri consists of a primary G-type star (similar to our sun) and a K-type secondary (orange dwarf). Due to its binary nature, it has been very difficult to discern possible signals from this system that could be the result of exoplanets.

So far, astronomers have reported numerous possible signals from Alpha Centauri. The first occurred in 2012 when astronomers reported an RV signal from Alpha Centauri B that was attributed to a planet (Alpha Centauri Bb) but revealed to be a false positive in 2015. A possible planetary transit was announced in 2013, but according to it was reportedly too close to its primary to support life. In 2021, a candidate planet named Candidate 1 (C1) was detected around Alpha Centauri A using direct thermal imaging, but this remains unconfirmed.

For Peter Tuthill, Professor of Physics at the Sydney Institute for Astronomy (SIfA) and Principal Scientist on the TOLIMAN mission, the difficult task of confirming planets around Alpha Centauri A and B is too tempting to pass up. As he said in a recent press release from the University of Sydney:

That’s tantalizingly close to home. Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets outside our own Solar System, but most are thousands of light-years away and out of reach. Modern satellite technology will allow us to explore our celestial backyard and perhaps lay the groundwork for future visionary missions spanning the interstellar voids of the Centauri system.”

“Any exoplanets we find close to Earth can be tracked with other instruments, giving excellent prospects for discovering and analyzing atmospheres, surface chemistry, or even fingerprints of a biosphere, the tentative signs of life,” Tuthill said.