New space telescope will search for planets near Alpha Centauri

Until now, the search for planets in the Alpha Centauri star system closest to the Sun has been complicated by the fact that it consists of two components. But the new TOLIMAN space telescope will be able to find worlds in it that have remained hidden until now.

A possible planet in the Centauri system. Source: ESO

Why is the planet at Alpha Centauri so hard to find?

A team of astronomers from the University of Sydney is working on the creation of a new space telescope — Telescope for Orbit Locus Interferometric Monitoring of Astronomical Neighborhood (TOLIMAN). The idea of its creation appeared back in 2019, but only now scientists are preparing to sign a contract with manufacturers of spacecraft.

The purpose of the new telescope will be a single star system. Alpha Centauri is only 4.37 light-years away, but we still don’t know if there are planets there. The reason for this is that it consists of two stars close enough to each other: yellow, similar to the Sun and orange, slightly smaller in size.

Because of this, it is difficult to apply most of the usual methods for detecting exoplanets to Alpha Centauri. They give too many erroneous results. For example, in 2012, a planet was found at component B. But already in 2015 it turned out that the signal was false.

In 2021, the planet was discovered already at the main component of the system. But this discovery has remained unconfirmed. In addition to everything, the system has a third component, called Proxima, and has its own planets. But it usually has nothing to do with the problems of the main couple.

How TOLIMAN will search for planets

The new TOLIMAN telescope will not be as big as JWST or Gaia, but scientists expect that it will be able to do what they cannot: reliably identify the planet at Alpha Centauri. For this, the telescope will constantly look only at it and will accurately fix the position. 

Schematic representation of the TOLIMAN telescope. Source: TOLIMAN Telescope diagram

In addition, the designers will abandon the attempt to focus a large amount of light from the star at one point. Instead, they will receive a large diffraction spot, the changes of which will be analyzed. 

Scientists believe that in this way they will be able to clearly trace the moments when the movement of the star in space will deviate from the rectilinear due to the gravitational action of the planet. It is believed that interaction with a companion star and spots on the surface will not give a significant error in this case.

When the very fact of the existence of the planet is established, other powerful telescopes can be connected to its confirmation. Perhaps this is how it will be possible to establish not only the presence of Alpha Centauri planets, but also what they look like.

According to

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