Scientists want to send a telescope to photograph Alpha Centauri

Project Blue is backed by SETI and UMass Lowell, but need cash from generous millionaires to make it happen.

ESO/M. Kornmesser

It used to be that if NASA didn't want to do something, it didn't get done, but we're a long way from those days. The agency doesn't believe that there's currently enough value in sending a probe to seek out new life forms and new civilizations in Alpha Centauri. But a consortium of private science nonprofits disagree, and are looking to send their own space telescope to snap our nearest neighbor. They've united together under the name Project Blue and hope to raise enough money to circumvent NASA and do it off their own backs.

The group is backed by some heavyweight names including SETI, UMass Lowell and the BoldlyGo Institute. It's hoped that Project Blue can construct and launch a small space telescope with a 45 to 50 centimeter aperture. This craft will then be sent into Earth orbit to take pictures of Alpha Centauri A and B in the hope that they can find Earth-like planets that could sustain life. That would, the group claims, "profoundly impact our understanding of the potential for life to exist elsewhere in our galaxy." It's not the only initiative that has an eye on the star system: Stephen Hawking has put his weight behind the $100 million Breakthrough Starshot concept.

The New York Times asked Jon Morse, one of the project's leaders, how much the proposed mission would cost. He feels that the whole trip could be undertaken for around $50 million, roughly a third of your average NASA mission. That money is likely to be raised through a series of private donations from rich people with an interest in science. At least, that's the plan, although we imagine plenty of millionaires get requests like this on a regular basis. Then again, it does seem a bit screwy that our first contact with aliens could depend on how generous the folks from Shark Tank are feeling.