Another Earth might exist right next door — and this tiny telescope may be the first to see it

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The first telescope to photograph a "pale blue dot" of another Earth in a distant solar system may not be funded by NASA, the European Space Agency, or some other government agency.

It might come from Kickstarter.

Dubbed Project Blue, the effort isn't run by hucksters out to peddle unrealistic technologies. A consortium of professional scientists and engineers, some of whom work at NASA, is running the show as a nonprofit called Mission Centaur.

"We're looking for a place that could support life," Supriya Chakrabarti, an optical and space scientist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who's part of Project Blue, told Business Insider.

Related: The evolution of NASA's view of Pluto

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The evolution of NASA's view of Pluto
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The evolution of NASA's view of Pluto

This image of haze layers above Pluto’s limb was taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft. About 20 haze layers are seen; the layers have been found to typically extend horizontally over hundreds of kilometers, but are not strictly parallel to the surface. For example, scientists note a haze layer about 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the surface (lower left area of the image), which descends to the surface at the right.

(Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Gladstone et al./Science (2016))

New Horizons’ views of the informally named Sputnik Planum on Pluto (top) and the informally named Vulcan Planum on Charon (bottom). The Sputnik Planum strip measures 228 miles (367 kilometers) long, and the Vulcan Planum strip measures 194 miles (312 kilometers) long. Illumination is from the left. The bright, nitrogen-ice plains are defined by a network of crisscrossing troughs. This observation was obtained by the Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) at a resolution of 1,050 feet (320 meters) per pixel. The Vulcan Planum view in the bottom panel includes the “moated mountain” Clarke Mons just above the center of the image. The water ice-rich plains display a range of surface textures, from smooth and grooved at left, to pitted and hummocky at right. This observation was obtained by the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) at a resolution of 525 feet (160 meters) per pixel.

(Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This enhanced color view of Pluto's surface diversity was created by merging Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) color imagery (650 meters or 2,132 feet per pixel) with Long Range Reconnaissance Imager panchromatic imagery (230 meters or 755 feet per pixel). At lower right, ancient, heavily cratered terrain is coated with dark, reddish tholins. At upper right, volatile ices filling the informally named Sputnik Planum have modified the surface, creating a chaos-like array of blocky mountains. Volatile ice also occupies a few nearby deep craters, and in some areas the volatile ice is pocked with arrays of small sublimation pits. At left, and across the bottom of the scene, gray-white methane ice deposits modify tectonic ridges, the rims of craters, and north-facing slopes. The scene in this image is 260 miles (420 kilometers) wide and 140 miles (225 kilometers) from top to bottom; north is to the upper left.

(Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Far in the western hemisphere, scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission have discovered what looks like a giant “bite mark” on Pluto’s surface. They suspect it may be caused by a process known as sublimation—the transition of a substance from a solid to a gas. The methane ice-rich surface on Pluto may be sublimating away into the atmosphere, exposing a layer of water-ice underneath.

(Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

Far in the western hemisphere, scientists on NASA’s New Horizons mission have discovered what looks like a giant “bite mark” on Pluto’s surface. They suspect it may be caused by a process known as sublimation—the transition of a substance from a solid to a gas. The methane ice-rich surface on Pluto may be sublimating away into the atmosphere, exposing a layer of water-ice underneath.

(Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

A close-up of the canyons on Charon, Pluto's big moon, taken by New Horizons during its close approach to the Pluto system last July. Multiple views taken by New Horizons as it passed by Charon allow stereo measurements of topography, shown in the color-coded version of the image. The scale bar indicates relative elevation.

(Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The Mountainous Shoreline of Sputnik Planum: In this highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, great blocks of Pluto’s water-ice crust appear jammed together in the informally named al-Idrisi mountains. "The mountains bordering Sputnik Planum are absolutely stunning at this resolution," said New Horizons science team member John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute. "The new details revealed here, particularly the crumpled ridges in the rubbly material surrounding several of the mountains, reinforce our earlier impression that the mountains are huge ice blocks that have been jostled and tumbled and somehow transported to their present locations." (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Pluto’s ‘Badlands’: This highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft shows how erosion and faulting have sculpted this portion of Pluto’s icy crust into rugged badlands topography. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Layered Craters and Icy Plains: This highest-resolution image from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft reveals new details of Pluto’s rugged, icy cratered plains, including layering in the interior walls of many craters. "Impact craters are nature's drill rigs, and the new, highest-resolution pictures of the bigger craters seem to show that Pluto's icy crust, at least in places, is distinctly layered,” said William McKinnon, deputy lead of the New Horizons Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team, from Washington University in St. Louis. "Looking into Pluto’s depths is looking back into geologic time, which will help us piece together Pluto's geological history.” (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

On approach in July 2015, the cameras on NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured Pluto rotating over the course of a full “Pluto day.” The best available images of each side of Pluto taken during approach have been combined to create this view of a full rotation. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

New Horizons scientists made this false color image of Pluto using a technique called principal component analysis to highlight the many subtle color differences between Pluto's distinct regions. The image data were collected by the spacecraft’s Ralph/MVIC color camera on July 14 at 11:11 AM UTC, from a range of 22,000 miles (35,000 kilometers). This image was presented by Will Grundy of the New Horizons’ surface composition team on Nov. 9 at the Division for Planetary Sciences (DPS) meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This image released by NASA on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, shows the blue color of Plutoâs haze layer in this picture taken by the New Horizons spacecraft's Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturnâs moon Titan. This image was generated by software that combines information from blue, red and near-infrared images to replicate the color a human eye would perceive as closely as possible. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via AP
This image released by NASA on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015, shows regions with exposed water ice highlighted in blue in this composite image taken with the New Horizons spacecraft's Ralph instrument. The image combines visible imagery from the Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC) with infrared spectroscopy from the Linear Etalon Imaging Spectral Array (LEISA). The scene is approximately 280 miles (450 kilometers) across. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via AP)
This image released by NASA on Thursday, Oct. 1, 2015, shows Charon, in enhanced color captured by NASA's New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015. Massive canyons and fractures are clearly visible on Charon, which is more than half of Plutoâs size. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via AP)
In this extended color image of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, rounded and bizarrely textured mountains, informally named the Tartarus Dorsa, rise up along Pluto’s day-night terminator and show intricate but puzzling patterns of blue-gray ridges and reddish material in between. This view, roughly 330 miles (530 kilometers) across, combines blue, red and infrared images taken by the Ralph/Multispectral Visual Imaging Camera (MVIC) on July 14, 2015, and resolves details and colors on scales as small as 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers). (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, reveal features as small as 270 yards (250 meters) across, from craters to faulted mountain blocks, to the textured surface of the vast basin informally called Sputnik Planum. Enhanced color has been added from the global color image. This image is about 330 miles (530 kilometers) across. For optimal viewing, zoom in on the image on a larger screen. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
High-resolution images of Pluto taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft just before closest approach on July 14, 2015, are the sharpest images to date of Pluto’s varied terrain—revealing details down to scales of 270 meters. In this 75-mile (120-kilometer) section of the taken from the larger, high-resolution mosaic above, the textured surface of the plain surrounds two isolated ice mountains.  (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Pluto’s Majestic Mountains, Frozen Plains and Foggy Hazes: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named icy plain Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. To the right, east of Sputnik, rougher terrain is cut by apparent glaciers. The backlighting highlights over a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 780 miles (1,250 kilometers) wide. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Majestic Mountains and Frozen Plains: Just 15 minutes after its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft looked back toward the sun and captured this near-sunset view of the rugged, icy mountains and flat ice plains extending to Pluto’s horizon. The smooth expanse of the informally named Sputnik Planum (right) is flanked to the west (left) by rugged mountains up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) high, including the informally named Norgay Montes in the foreground and Hillary Montes on the skyline. The backlighting highlights more than a dozen layers of haze in Pluto’s tenuous but distended atmosphere. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers) to Pluto; the scene is 230 miles (380 kilometers) across. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Near-Surface Haze or Fog on Pluto: In this small section of the larger crescent image of Pluto, taken by NASA’s New Horizons just 15 minutes after the spacecraft’s closest approach on July 14, 2015, the setting sun illuminates a fog or near-surface haze, which is cut by the parallel shadows of many local hills and small mountains. The image was taken from a distance of 11,000 miles (18,000 kilometers), and the width of the image is 115 miles (185 kilometers). (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
This animation combines various observations of Pluto over the course of several decades. The first frame is a digital zoom-in on Pluto as it appeared upon its discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930 (image courtesy Lowell Observatory Archives). The other images show various views of Pluto as seen by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope beginning in the 1990s and NASA's New Horizons spacecraft in 2015. The final sequence zooms in to a close-up frame of Pluto released on July 15, 2015. (Photo via NASA/Clyde Tombaugh, Lowell Observatory)
Pluto’s ‘Heart’: Sputnik Planum is the informal name of the smooth, light-bulb shaped region on the left of this composite of several New Horizons images of Pluto. The brilliantly white upland region to the right may be coated by nitrogen ice that has been transported through the atmosphere from the surface of Sputnik Planum, and deposited on these uplands. The box shows the location of the glacier detail images below. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Valley Glaciers on Pluto: Ice (probably frozen nitrogen) that appears to have accumulated on the uplands on the right side of this 390-mile (630-kilometer) wide image is draining from Pluto’s mountains onto the informally named Sputnik Planum through the 2- to 5-mile (3- to 8- kilometer) wide valleys indicated by the red arrows. The flow front of the ice moving into Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
Intricate Valley Glaciers on Pluto: This image covers the same region as the image before, but is re-projected from the oblique, backlit view shown in the new crescent image of Pluto. The backlighting highlights the intricate flow lines on the glaciers. The flow front of the ice moving into the informally named Sputnik Planum is outlined by the blue arrows. The origin of the ridges and pits on the right side of the image remains uncertain. This image is 390 miles (630 kilometers) across. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)
This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
Mosaic of high-resolution images of Pluto, sent back from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft from Sept. 5 to 7, 2015. The image is dominated by the informally-named icy plain Sputnik Planum, the smooth, bright region across the center. This image also features a tremendous variety of other landscapes surrounding Sputnik. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size, and the mosaic covers a region roughly 1,000 miles (1600 kilometers) wide. The image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
In the center of this 300-mile (470-kilometer) wide image of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft is a large region of jumbled, broken terrain on the northwestern edge of the vast, icy plain informally called Sputnik Planum, to the right. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This 220-mile (350-kilometer) wide view of Pluto from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. This image was taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).
(Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This image of Pluto’s largest moon Charon, taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft 10 hours before its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 290,000 miles (470,000 kilometers), is a recently downlinked, much higher quality version of a Charon image released on July 15. Charon, which is 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) in diameter, displays a surprisingly complex geological history, including tectonic fracturing; relatively smooth, fractured plains in the lower right; several enigmatic mountains surrounded by sunken terrain features on the right side; and heavily cratered regions in the center and upper left portion of the disk. There are also complex reflectivity patterns on Charon’s surface, including bright and dark crater rays, and the conspicuous dark north polar region at the top of the image. The smallest visible features are 2.9 miles 4.6 kilometers) in size. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
Two different versions of an image of Pluto’s haze layers, taken by New Horizons as it looked back at Pluto's dark side nearly 16 hours after close approach, from a distance of 480,000 miles (770,000 kilometers), at a phase angle of 166 degrees. Pluto's north is at the top, and the sun illuminates Pluto from the upper right. These images are much higher quality than the digitally compressed images of Pluto’s haze downlinked and released shortly after the July 14 encounter, and allow many new details to be seen. The left version has had only minor processing, while the right version has been specially processed to reveal a large number of discrete haze layers in the atmosphere. In the left version, faint surface details on the narrow sunlit crescent are seen through the haze in the upper right of Pluto’s disk, and subtle parallel streaks in the haze may be crepuscular rays- shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountain ranges on Pluto, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the sun sets behind mountains on Earth. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), backlit by the sun, Pluto's atmosphere rings its silhouette like a luminous halo in this image taken by NASAs New Horizons spacecraft around midnight EDT on July 15, and released July 23, 2015. New Horizons passed by Pluto July 14, closing to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). This global portrait of the atmosphere was captured when the spacecraft was about 1.25 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Pluto and shows structures as small as 12 miles across The 1,050-pound piano sized probe was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via Getty Images)
Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this sharper global view of Pluto. (The lower right edge of Pluto in this view currently lacks high-resolution color coverage.) The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away from Pluto, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers). That’s twice the resolution of the single-image view captured on July 13 and revealed at the approximate time of New Horizons’ July 14 closest approach. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

New Horizons scientists use enhanced color images to detect differences in the composition and texture of Pluto’s surface. When close-up images are combined with color data from the Ralph instrument, it paints a new and surprising portrait of the dwarf planet. The “heart of the heart,” Sputnik Planum, is suggestive of a source region of ices. The two bluish-white “lobes” that extend to the southwest and northeast of the “heart” may represent exotic ices being transported away from Sputnik Planum. 

Four images from New Horizons’ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) were combined with color data from the Ralph instrument to create this enhanced color global view. The images, taken when the spacecraft was 280,000 miles (450,000 kilometers) away, show features as small as 1.4 miles (2.2 kilometers).

(Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

This Tuesday, July 14, 2015 image provided by NASA on Wednesday shows Pluto's largest moon, Charon, made by the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via AP)

This new image taken July 14, 2015 shows an area on Pluto's largest moon Charon that has a captivating feature—a depression with a peak in the middle, shown here in the upper left corner of the inset.

The image shows an area approximately 240 miles (390 kilometers) from top to bottom, including few visible craters. “The most intriguing feature is a large mountain sitting in a moat,” said Jeff Moore with NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California, who leads New Horizons’ Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team. “This is a feature that has geologists stunned and stumped.”

This image gives a preview of what the surface of this large moon will look like in future close-ups from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. This image is heavily compressed; sharper versions are anticipated when the full-fidelity data from New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) are returned to Earth. 

(Photo via NASA-JHUAPL-SwRI)

One of the final images taken before New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto on July 14, 2015. (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This Tuesday, July 14, 2015 image provided by NASA on Wednesday shows a region near Pluto's equator with a range of mountains captured by the New Horizons spacecraft. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via AP)
This July 14, 2015 photo provided by NASA shows an image taken from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft showing a new close-up image from the heart-shaped feature on the surface of Pluto that reveals a vast, craterless plain. (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via AP)
In this handout provided by NASA, a newly discovered mountain range lies near the southwestern margin of Pluto's Tombaugh Regio (Tombaugh Region), situated between bright, icy plains and dark, heavily-cratered terrain. This image was acquired by New Horizons Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) on July 14, 2015 from a distance of 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) and sent back to Earth on July 20, 2015. Features as small as a half-mile (1 kilometer) across are visible.. The 1,050-pound piano sized probe was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI via Getty Images)

This July 13, 2015, image of Pluto and Charon is presented in false colors to make differences in surface material and features easy to see. It was obtained by the Ralph instrument on NASA's New Horizons spacecraft, using three filters to obtain color information, which is exaggerated in the image.  These are not the actual colors of Pluto and Charon, and the apparent distance between the two bodies has been reduced for this side-by-side view. (Photo via NASA/APL/SwRI)

In this handout provided by NASA, the dwarf planet Pluto (R) and Charon are shown July 11, 2015. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is nearing its July 14 flyby when it will close to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). The 1,050-pound piano sized probe, which was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is traveling 30,800 mph as it approaches. (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via Getty Images)
Pluto’s bright, mysterious “heart” is rotating into view, ready for its close-up on close approach, in this image taken by New Horizons on July 12 from a distance of 1.6 million miles (2.5 million kilometers). It is the target of the highest-resolution images that will be taken during the spacecraft’s closest approach to Pluto on July 14. The intriguing “bulls-eye” feature at right is rotating out of view, and will not be seen in greater detail. (Photo via NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI)
In this handout provided by the NASA, the dwarf planet Pluto is shown at distance of about 2.5 million miles July 11, 2015. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is nearing its July 14 flyby when it will close to a distance of about 7,800 miles (12,500 kilometers). The 1,050-pound piano sized probe, which was launched January 19, 2006 aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, is traveling 30,800 mph as it approaches. (Photo by NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via Getty Images)
This July 8, 2015 image provided by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute shows Pluto, right, and its moon, Charon, from the New Horizonsâ Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) combined with lower-resolution color information from the spacecraft's Ralph instrument. (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via AP)
This image received on July 8, 2015 and made available by NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute shows Pluto from the New Horizons' Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) combined with lower-resolution color information from the spacecraft's Ralph instrument. (NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI via AP)

This map of Pluto, made from images taken by the LORRI instrument aboard New Horizons, shows a wide array of bright and dark markings of varying sizes and shapes. The elongated dark area informally known as “the whale,” along the equator on the left side of the map, is one of the darkest regions visible to New Horizons. It measures some 1,860 miles (3,000 kilometers) in length. Continuing to the right, along the equator, we see the four mysterious dark spots that have so intrigued the world, each of which is hundreds of miles across. Meanwhile, the whale’s “tail,” at the left end of the dark feature, cradles a bright donut-shaped feature about 200 miles (350 kilometers) across. (Photo via NASA-JHUAPL-SWRI)

This combination of images made by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 and 2003 shows Pluto at different angles. NASA's New Horizons spacecraft is nearing the end of its nine-year voyage to Pluto, and has just over 100 million miles to go before getting there in July 2015. Starting Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, it will begin photographing the mysterious, unexplored, icy world once deemed a planet. (AP Photo/NASA, ESA, M. Buie)
This series of New Horizons images of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was taken at 13 different times spanning 6.5 days, starting on April 12 and ending on April 18, 2015. During that time, the NASA spacecraft's distance from Pluto decreased from about 69 million miles (111 million kilometers) to 64 million miles (104 million kilometers). (Photo via NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
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Mission Centaur hopes its six-week panhandle on Kickstarter, which starts November 15, nets them at least $1 million — enough cash to pick up the work that a group of the researchers started at NASA but couldn't get more funding to support.

It says the money will go toward further design and research of the project.

The group ultimately expects the mission to cost between $25 million and $50 million to get into orbit around Earth within the next four to six years. That price tag includes sharing a ride on a rocket like SpaceX's Falcon 9, and it's nothing compared with the billions NASA has spent on space observatories.

Once in orbit, an epic two-year stare-down would begin.

Chakrabarti said he's confident that crowdfunding the first stage of Project Blue will work out, buying time to attract a big following — and bigger funders later on.

"After ghosts and dinosaurs, space comes a close third, in terms of people's interest," he said.

Shooting in the dark

Project Blue's target is Alpha Centauri, a system that contains two of the closest stars to our own solar system at just 4.4 light-years away.

One of the stars, called Alpha Centauri A, is even sunlike.

However, nobody actually knows if a blue marble like Earth — a world with liquid-water oceans, a cozy atmosphere, and other conditions necessary for life — might lurk in the double-star system. Not even the Hubble Space Telescope, the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope or other advanced observatories could tell an astronomer.

So it's a bit of a gamble to make even a small telescope that's purpose-built to stare down one star system.

But Chakrabarti and the other Mission Centaur scientists think it's a good bet. They cite the most recent planet-hunting data from Kepler that pegs the odds of a rocky planet orbiting a star's "habitable zone," or close enough to create liquid water, near 85%.

"Roughly one out of every two stars has a potentially habitable planet," Ruslan Belikov, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, said in "The Search for Earth Proxima" — a short documentary about the project. "The number of potentially habitable planets in our galaxy alone is greater than the number of people alive on Earth."

According to Lee Billings at Scientific American, Belikov and another scientist in 2014 pitched NASA a telescope similar to Project Blue, "but the agency passed over the speculative, narrowly focused project."

That's not too much of a surprise, since NASA likes its space telescopes more like Swiss Army knives and able to view multiple targets with ease. The equipment and techniques also weren't quite there at the time — hurdles that Mission Centaur no longer foresees.

"The technology required to do this is only very recent. It hasn't been ready until now," said Brett Marty, the documentary's filmmaker and the executive director of Mission Centaur.

At roughly the size of a modest washing machine, Project Blue would be a pretty dinky space telescope if built — certainly compared with the school-bus-size Hubble.

But it doesn't need to be large. It's focused on only one part of the sky and needs minimal electronics — whereas Hubble needs large gyroscopes and multiple cameras to move and take aim at different objects in space.

Project Blue's ultimate task is resolving any very dim objects next to ones 1 billion to 10 billion times brighter.

"Imagine there's a marble next to a lighthouse in Cape Cod," Chakrabarti said. "Now try to image that marble from San Francisco. That is what we're dealing with."

He said that "three key technologies matured enough that we can tell people with a straight face that we're now actually ready to go and do this thing."

One is a miniaturized version of a coronagraph, a complex instrument that can blocks each star's blinding light and can reveal planets hiding in the glare.

"It's kind of like playing tennis and the sun is in your eyes," Marty said. "When you put your hand up to block it, you can see the ball coming. Here we're suppressing both stars at once" and catching the balls.

Keeping the precision while shrinking what's normally a very large instrument wasn't easy, they said.

The next challenge was that "it's near impossible to make a perfect mirror," or at least a large one, Chakrabarti said.

Related: NASA releases new photos of Mars

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NASA releases new photos of Mars
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NASA releases new photos of Mars

Edge of North Polar Erg Dubbed Windy City

(NASA)

Landforms at West End of Her Desher Vallis 

(NASA)

Small Tributary Deposit and Transverse Aeolian Ridges in Nirgal Vallis 

(NASA)

Gullies in Dunes Dubbed Kolhar

(NASA)

Dunes Dubbed Tleilax 

(NASA)

Gully Monitoring 

(NASA)

Terrain Near Peneus Patera 

(NASA)

Clean Exposures of Light-Toned Chaos Blocks in Gorgonum Chaos

(NASA)

Syria Planum Bedform and Albedo Changes 

(NASA)

Variety of Spider Features 

(NASA)

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The solution? A "deformable" mirror, which is a computer-chip-like array of about 1,000 ultra-tiny (and very perfect) mirrors that can be programmed to move with microscopic precision thousands of times a second, helping cancel out any optical imperfections in the telescope.

The third and final technical hurdle to making Project Blue possible was image stabilization.

"A crisp image is what is needed because the planet would be so close to the star," Chakrabarti said. "We have built such a system and proven it works to the level Hubble can point."

Marty said it's similar to the gyros in consumer cameras that stabilize an image — though far more exacting.

"This is really the reason we're able to do this mission at such a low cost," he said.

To prove the stabilizers worked well enough to keep Project Blue gazing endlessly at Alpha Centauri, Chakrabarti's team launched experimental prototypes toward the edge of space, some 60 miles up. For the few minutes they floated in the thin air before falling back to Earth, they perfectly stabilized the experimental rig.

If all goes according to plan, Project Blue will take hundreds or even thousands of pictures of the star system in three colors (including blue), merge the giant pile of images, and lift a pale blue dot out from the noise of pixels.

"We have to take care of every single possible event that could contribute to this noise," Chakrabarti said. "This is why we've decided we need at least two years of measurement to convince ourselves we're seeing a true, Earth-like planet."

It's important to note this isn't the closest star system, which we heard a lot about earlier this year: a red dwarf star called Proxima Centauri.

Although a dogged team of astronomers strongly believes a rocky, Earth-size planet called Proxima b is circling that star in its habitable zone, Chakrabarti and Marty said it's not a great target for their ragtag operation.

At about 4 million miles away from its star, Marty said, "There's a lot of radiation. It's also a tricky target and hard to resolve, and it might not be anything like our planet."

An observatory like the behemoth James Webb Space Telescope might be the first to study that world, though it wouldn't be a "pale blue dot" photo — more like a fuzzy heat signature that could indicate "this is an incinerated hellhole" or "a useful atmosphere and potentially water lurk here."

Project Blue, of course, actually intends to return images of a habitable planets, like this:

If Project Blue works, Mission Centaur said it could launch a new era of planet-hunting telescopes.

Also, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his Breakthrough Starshot project — an effort to laser-propel tiny spacecraft to the Alpha Centauri or Proxima Centauri systems — would have a solid and intriguing target.

But even if that pie-in-the-sky idea falls down and all we're left with is a crummy image of a pale blue dot, it would still be Earth-shattering.

"Finding an Earth Proxima would be a transformative event in the history of mankind," Bill Diamond, president and CEO of the SETI Institute, said in the documentary. "I would love to think that is something that helps bring us together. It's a very unifying thing."

And in divisive times like these, unity is something the human race could use a lot more of.

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