4 mins read 24 Mar 2023

TOLIMAN mission signs EnduroSat contract

The University of Sydney has teamed up with EnduroSat to roll out the TOLIMAN mission - a low-cost, small-satellite technology astronomy mission designed to look for signs of habitability in Earth’s closest star system.

The Alpha Centauri system as viewed in optical and x-ray spectra. Credit: University of Sydney.

The University of Sydney has partnered with EnduroSat, a leading provider of microsatellites and space services, to explore the possibility of life beyond our own planet. Backed by the Breakthrough Initiatives in California, the mission is dubbed TOLIMAN after the ancient Arabic name for Alpha Centauri, our nearest neighbour star system. 

“Modern satellite technology will allow us to explore our celestial backyard and perhaps lay the groundwork for visionary future missions spanning the interstellar voids to the Centauri system,” said the leader of the TOLIMAN mission, Professor Peter Tuthill from the University of Sydney.

“Any exoplanets we find that close to Earth can be followed up with other instruments, giving excellent prospects for discovering and analysing atmospheres, surface chemistry or even fingerprints of a biosphere – the tentative signs of life.”

Professor Tuthill has an impressive track record in designing high-precision instrumentation and projects for international astronomy projects such as NASA’s JWST project which has been revolutionary in observational astronomy. He was integral in designing its NIRISS Aperture Masking Interferometry mode which offers high spatial observational resolution ideal in searching for exoplanets. This expertise will come in handy when designing observational equipment for the TOLIMAN project. 

The Breakthrough Initiatives, which are funded by the Breakthrough Foundation established by Julia and Yuri Milner, are a suite of scientific and technological programs investigating the fundamental questions of life in the Universe - which also include telescope time purchased on CSIRO’s Parkes radio telescope to search for any technosignatures that might be present around stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. 

The 12-unit EnduroSat CubeSat module. Credit: EnduroSat.

Located just four light-years from Earth, Alpha Centauri is a promising target due to its proximity to Earth and is comprised of two Sun-like stars, Alpha Centauri A and B. The mission will search for planets in the “Goldilocks” zone around these two stars; a region that is neither too hot nor too cold for life to exist - i.e., where water (a key ingredient for life as we know it) can exist in its liquid phase. 

To achieve this feat, the team is developing a small custom-designed space telescope capable of extremely fine measurements that must fit within a limited volume – just 12 litres – while maintaining its thermal and mechanical stability with exquisite precision using active systems. EnduroSat will provide the delivery system for this custom-built mini-satellite that supports the mission. 

EnduroSat’s team, which includes an army of 120+ developers, engineers and scientists are worrying towards providing space data services to develop the next generation of commercial space services and exploration programs. 

“We are exceptionally proud to partner in this mission. The challenges are enormous, and it will drive our engineering efforts to the extreme. The mission is a first-of-its-kind exploration science effort and will help open the doors for low-cost astronomy missions,” said Raycho Raychev, Founder and CEO of EnduroSat.

Discovering exoplanets is a major technological challenge even for large space telescopes. For a mini satellite, it is especially daunting as it requires extreme precision in order to detect planets in other star systems. The satellite needs to be able to downlink payload data at a speed of 125+ Mbps which will be critical for downloading all data from prolonged observation sessions. 

The two stars that make up the Alpha Centauri AB system. Credit: European Space Agency.

Alpha Centauri A and B are binary stars orbiting each other closely enough that they would appear as one bright point of light if viewed from Earth without any magnification or sophisticated instruments; however, this does not mean they are identical twins as their masses differ by about 20%. Alpha Centauri A is slightly larger than our own Sun while Alpha Centauri B is slightly smaller than our Sun.

The Alpha Centauri system also includes Proxima Centauri - currently the closest star to Earth, itself with its own exoplanet called ProximaB. This red dwarf star (and its exoplanet) orbits both Alpha Centauri stars at an extraordinary distance - with a single year lasting approximately 550,000 Earth years. 

Dr S Pete Worden, Executive Director of Breakthrough Initiatives said: “It’s very exciting to see this program come to life. With these partnerships, we can create a new kind of astronomical mission and make real progress on understanding the planetary systems right next door."