Explorers Club: from the Poles to Everest, the Moon and now the stars

Only 222 flags have ever been issued, including to Neil Armstrong, Roald Amundsen, Tensing Norgay & Edmund Hilary - and now Professor Peter Tuthill’s team looking for signs of habitable planets just four light years away.

Unboxing the Explorers Club flag

Courtesy of Seven News

The TOLIMAN mission to discover planets - and perhaps life - around our nearest stellar neighbours in the Centauri system has been awarded a prestigious Explorers Club flag.

The Explorers Club was founded in 1904 in New York to celebrate the age of exploration and support scientific expeditions the world over. Since then, it has supported hundreds of missions, issuing 222 numbered flags to accompany efforts to push the boundaries of human knowledge.

Now, an Explorers Club flag will hang in the TOLIMAN operations centre as the team pursues its mission to search for planets, like our own, perhaps capable of hosting life.

The TOLIMAN team plans to etch a likeness of the flag onto the University of Sydney co-designed and co-built mini-satellite telescope. Its mission? To cast its eye four light years away to Alpha Centauri to see if there are planets in that star system in the Goldilocks zone - worlds that are not too hot, nor too cold, to maintain liquid water.

The TOLIMAN mission has inherited an impressive pedigree. Early members of the Explorers Club were Robert Peary, who led the first expedition to the North Pole (1909) and Roald Amundsen who led the Norwegians in the race to the South Pole (1911).

Other members include Tenzig Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first to climb Mount Everest (1953); Neil Armstrong and and Buzz Aldrin, who took an Explorers Club flag to the Moon (1969); and Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, who took a flag to the depths of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean (1960).  

TOLIMAN Principal Investigator Professor Peter Tuthill from the School of Physics at the University of Sydney said: "What an amazing honour for our team to be recognised in the same company as the polar explorers and lunar astronauts who have carried this flag. 

"It certainly sets a very high bar for the scale of the challenges our mission is aiming to meet.

The flag has formally been awarded to  Dr S. Pete Worden , Executive Director of the  Breakthrough Initiatives  and a former director of NASA Ames Research Center.

Breakthrough Watch  is the principal funding partner of the TOLIMAN mission and forms part of the  Breakthrough Initiatives , a suite of space science programs exploring the possibility of life in the Universe beyond Earth.

Dr Worden said: "For more than 100 years, the flag has honored the most significant endeavours of human exploration. As an Explorers Club member for over a decade, I am honoured to accept the flag on behalf of our TOLIMAN project."

The next steps for TOLIMAN will be to build the satellite telescope.

EnduroSat , a European satellite manufacturer, will design and build the TOLIMAN  16U CubeSat. It will be able to downlink payload data at a speed of 125+ Mbps, which will be critical for downloading all data from prolonged observation sessions. Project leaders hope to launch the satellite on board a SpaceX flight sometime in 2025.

While larger telescopes have viewed planets around distant stars, the technology needed to look for planets in systems within 10 parsecs (32 light years) requires purpose-built technology that will be central to the TOLIMAN telescope. Alpha Centauri is just four light years away.

Professor Tuthill, also a member of the  Sydney Institute for Astronomy , said: "Nobody is underestimating the challenge, but our innovative design incorporates new tricks. Our plan is for an agile, low-cost mission that delivers results by about the middle of the decade."

The project partners also include Spiral Blue, a Sydney-based space tech company, which will provide edge-computing capability to TOLIMAN.

The partnership with  Spiral Blue  is in part supported through funding from  SmartSAT  Cooperative Research Centre, an ARC funded Australian consortium delivering advanced telecommunications and IoT connectivity, intelligent satellite systems and Earth observation next generation data services. The mission is also supported by an ARC Linkage grant.

Declaration

The TOLIMAN mission is funded by Breakthrough Initiatives.

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In collaboration with the Breakthrough Initiative, Saber Astronautics and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Professor Peter Tuthill is leading TOLIMAN, a project to discover if the nearest stars have planets that could support life.