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Citizen scientists unite to find an Earth-like world around Alpha Centauri

Carl Sagan coined the term “pale blue dot” 26 years ago in reference to an image of Earth captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft from 6 billion kilometers away. Sagan’s infectious wonder at the universe inspired generations of future scientists.

Now, some of those scientists have teamed up to extend Sagan’s legacy with Project Blue, a mission to photograph Earth-like planets in the Alpha Centauri star system. The initiative launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project this week.

“There might be another habitable planet around our nearest neighbor.”

“There might be another habitable planet around our nearest neighbor,” Supriya Chakrabarti, professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and Science advisor for Project Blue, told Digital Trends. “That idea resonates with people.”

Exoplanets were first confirmed in 1995, and since its launch in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has discovered thousands of them. In May of this year, the Kepler mission verified another 1,284 new planets, about half of which could be rocky and potentially Earth-like.

“There are billions of these planets within our own galaxy,” said Brett Marty, executive director at nonprofit Mission Centaur, one of the organizations leading Project Blue. “Kepler has taught us that one out of every two stars in the night sky has a rocky, potentially Earth-like planet within its habitable zone. That’s more potentially Earth-like planets than there are people on Earth.”

Project Blue decided to crowdfund the mission in an effort to inspire and engage citizen scientists. “We wanted to start by making it a project for everyone,” Marty said. “It was important to get at least the initial seed funding for development and design from the general community and people who are just genuinely excited about science.”

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Project Blue estimates its mission will cost $30 million and hopes to raise its first million via Kickstarter. That may seem like a lot of money to crowdfund, but it’s a fraction of the cost of the Kepler mission ($600 million) and the upcoming James Webb mission ($8.7 billion). That’s because the washing machine-sized telescope planned for Project Blue will be built to do just one thing — find another Earth.

“Other telescopes have inferred the presence of planets through things like the Doppler method,” Chakrabarti said. “This is the next step, which would take out some of the ambiguity.

“If we are looking for something that we know is habitable, if we are looking for our twin planet, searching for the color blue might be a good way to go,” Chakrabarti added, because blue could signify water, an essential element for life as we know it.

The campaign has currently raised nearly $67,000 with just over a month left to go. If all goes well they hope to launch their telescope by 2019. If the campaign fails to earn the $1 million via Kickstarter, it will turn to private donors for support.