Published: Jan. 9, 2024

Pete WordenPete Worden
Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, Former Director of NASA Ames
Friday, Jan. 19 | 10:40 a.m. | AERO 120

The Breakthrough Initiatives are a suite of scientific space exploration programs searching for signatures of life beyond Earth. These efforts include Breakthrough Listen, a search for technosignatures and advanced life, Breakthrough Watch, a ground and space-borne program to support direct imaging of nearby exoplanets and Breakthrough Starshot, an interstellar programme to develop lightsail probes destined to Alpha Centauri.

The Alpha Centauri system has been center stage in scientific discoveries recently, and is a focus across the breadth of the Breakthrough Initiatives. As the closest star and planetary system to our Solar System at ~1.3 pc, our neighbor is intriguing. Multiple observations are ongoing, and plans are drawn up for an eventual visit.

In the past few years, several planets have been confirmed orbiting Proxima Centauri – one appears to be earth sized and in the star’s “habitable zone.” Non-thermal radio emission has been confirmed from Proxima and appears modulated by the planet Proxima b. There is even, albeit likely to be terrestrial interference, narrow band signals from the star. Recent results suggest the possible presence of a giant planet in the habitable zone of Rigel Kentaurus.

The presentation will cover recent astronomical efforts related to this exciting nearby star system as well as life-detection missions within our own solar system.

Near-term applications of the Lightsail technology being developed for future missions to Alpha Centauri, in particular missions flying close the sun, so-called sundivers, offer high speed, low-cost access to the outer solar system.

Bio: Dr. S. “Pete” Worden, (Brig Gen, USAF, Ret, PhD) is Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and Executive Director of the foundation’s ‘Breakthrough Initiatives’. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and Astronomy from the University of Michigan and a PhD in Astronomy from the University of Arizona.

After several US Air Force positions and a research professorship in astronomy at the University of Arizona, Dr. Worden was Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center until retiring in 2015. From 2017 to the present, Brigadier General Worden is an Advisor to the Luxembourg Space Agency and was appointed as a Knight-Commander of the Order of Merit of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in 2018 for his space services.


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