On Breakthrough Discuss

by Paul Gilster on April 19, 2017

Although I hadn’t thought I would get a post off today, I do want to get this Breakthrough Initiatives news release out about the upcoming Breakthrough Discuss meeting. Pay particular attention to the online options for participating.


Second annual “Breakthrough Discuss” conference held April 20-21 and broadcast on Facebook Live

San Francisco – April 18, 2017 – Breakthrough Initiatives today announced its second annual Breakthrough Discuss scientific conference, which will bring together leading astronomers, engineers, astrobiologists and astrophysicists to advance discussion surrounding recent discoveries of potentially habitable planets in nearby star systems. The conference will take place on Thursday, April 20 and Friday, April 21, at Stanford University.

The two days of discussions will focus on newly discovered Earth-like “exoplanets” in the Alpha Centauri and TRAPPIST-1 planetary systems, and new evidence that these planets could be habitable, as well as their potential as targets for novel methods of space exploration.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé, Queen Mary University of London, and Michaël Gillon, University of Liège, will serve as keynote speakers. Sessions will be chaired by Olivier Guyon, University of Arizona, Jill Tarter, former director of the Center for SETI Research, and Avi Loeb, Harvard University. A full overview of the sessions and panels are listed below.

“In the last 10 months, the world of astronomy has been rocked by discoveries of other planetary systems that look remarkably like our own,” said S. Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives. “The Breakthrough Discuss conference brings together many of the leading minds to advance the conversation on the potential for life on other worlds and to interrogate the conflicting theories and hypotheses prompted by this new data.”

The two-day event will feature three sessions of 19 presentations and 15 panelists. The first will focus on recent observations of nearby planets, including Proxima b, and new techniques for observing them. The second session will examine the possibility of intelligent life in Earth’s cosmic neighborhood, and recent attempts to search for it with Breakthrough Listen. The third session will assess the significance of the newly-discovered exoplanets for the long-term Breakthrough Starshot endeavor, a program spearheaded by Yuri Milner to develop a practical interstellar space probe.

As the closest known exoplanet, Proxima b is the current primary target for Starshot, which aims to develop the technology to send gram-scale spacecraft travelling at 20 percent the speed of light to Alpha Centauri, some 4.367 light years away. Starshot mission leaders Avi Loeb, Philip Lubin and Zac Manchester will be among the distinguished participants at Breakthrough Discuss.

The conference will be broadcast on Facebook Live at www.Facebook.com/BreakthroughPrize. Viewers are encouraged to join in the conversation and submit questions, which have the opportunity to be answered by the panelists in real-time.

Start times for all sessions will also be posted on the Breakthrough Facebook page. For more information on the program, including a detailed schedule, please visit: breakthroughinitiatives.org/Events.

Breakthrough Discuss is hosted by Stanford University’s Department of Physics and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and sponsored by the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Breakthrough Discuss is an annual academic conference focused on life in the Universe and novel ideas for space exploration.

Breakthrough Initiatives are a suite of scientific and technological programs exploring the big questions around life in the Universe, such as, Are we alone? What are the nearest habitable planets? And can we become an interstellar civilization?

For more information see breakthroughinitiatives.org

Breakthrough Discuss

Thursday, April 20 and Friday, April 21


Earth has discovered a neighbor.

In August 2016, the exoplanet Proxima b was discovered on our cosmic doorstep. It orbits Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to our Sun, approximately 4.2 light-years (25 trillion miles) away. This was a thrilling discovery: the closest known exoplanet to the Solar System also happens to lie within the habitable zone of its star; and just four months after its launch, Breakthrough Starshot had its first target.

Then, in February 2017, seven exoplanets were identified orbiting a dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1, about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth. In cosmic terms, these planets too are just down the street. As evolving observation and propulsion technologies promise to extend our vision and physical presence to interstellar destinations, these potentially habitable or life-bearing worlds are transforming the space of our possibilities for life in our galactic neighborhood: both possibilities for extraterrestrial life, and for the future of humanity.

The discoveries of Proxima b and the seven worlds of the TRAPPIST-1 system will be the overarching theme for this year’s Breakthrough Discuss.

Session One: Observations of Proxima b and Habitable Planets Around Nearby Cool Stars

What can be learned about Proxima b and habitable planets around nearby cool stars by remote sensing from Earth and from near-term space missions? This session will focus on observations and systems, both Earth-based and space-based, for studying the newly discovered Proxima b planet and yet-to-be-identified habitable planets around nearby M-type stars. A particular focus will be on how life might be confirmed, and when this might be feasible.

Session Chair:

* Olivier Guyon, University of Arizona

Session Co-Chairs:

* David Charbonneau, Harvard University
* Lisa Kaltenegger, Cornell University

Session Two: SETI Observations of Proxima b and Nearby Stars

What SETI measurements are possible for Proxima b and nearby stars? This session will review a number of SETI observations already taken of the Proxima Centauri system, and consider new observation possibilities. These include discussion of what “leakage” from a technological civilization might be detected with current instrumentation; what additional observations can and should be made; and ideas for new and untried methods of observation and data-gathering.

Session Chair:

* Jill Tarter, SETI Institute
Session Co-Chairs:

* Tabetha Boyajian, Louisiana State University
* Andrew Siemion, University of California, Berkeley
* Jason Wright, Penn State University
* Shelley Wright, University of California, San Diego

Session Three: Scientific Goals and Instrumentation for a Flyby of the Nearest Stars

Breakthrough Starshot aims to send lightweight probes at a fraction of the speed of light to the nearest stars. What instruments and measurements should be available to this fleet of spacecraft? This session will focus on measurements that could be made by StarChips flying through the Alpha Centauri planetary system, with an emphasis on the search for life on Proxima b. The discussion will include an initial brainstorm on the desired spectral and imaging parameters (resolution and wavelengths), the type of instruments (including novel probes of particles and fields), as well as the optimal flyby distance and trajectory.

Session Chair:

* Avi Loeb, Harvard University

Session Co-Chairs:

* Phil Lubin, University of California, Santa Barbara
* Zac Manchester, Harvard University
* Mason Peck, Cornell


For Breakthrough Initiatives
Rubenstein / Kristen Bothwell
212-843-9227 / KBothwell@Rubenstein.com


{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Bill April 19, 2017 at 12:02

I know you won’t be attending this year but wondered if you could point us towards a forum that might provide a summary of the more interesting discussions. Or will you be summarizing based on someone else’s notes?


Paul Gilster April 19, 2017 at 20:50

Sorry, but I don’t know who will be covering what from the scene. If I find a good source, I’ll post it here — please do the same if you find someone reporting from the site. Otherwise, I’d check into the online options mentioned above.


Alexander Tolley April 21, 2017 at 22:27

The sessions videos are being posted on the FB page.


Angelle April 22, 2017 at 16:26

They might post the recorded sessions on their main page. We should make sure they do. Right now they are archived on FB.


djlactin April 19, 2017 at 13:11

I think a few missions to our outer planets and other round things might be useful to iron out the kinks in the system.


Harry R Ray April 19, 2017 at 13:40

Dittman, Charbonneau, et al should be ADDED to this list PRONTO, in light of their BRAND NEW DISCOVERY with the MEarth and Harps planet detectors!!! LHS 1140b is a 1.4 Re, 6.6Me planet with a 25 day orbital period orbiting a star almost identical to Gliese 1214(i.e. 0.2Rs) without the extreme flaring activity of Proxima b and TRAPPIST-1! From this, it appears that the GENERALLY ACCEPTED THRESHOLD of 1.6 Re is a (much?)more reliable rocky-gassius threshold than the Kipping-Chen “low-end” threshold of 1.2Re, and makes it IMPERATIVE that ESPRESSO(which IS transportable) be used to determine the mass of the much maligned Kepler 452b at the facility that now houses HARPS North ASAP


Allen G Taylor April 19, 2017 at 18:09

Will there be any discussion of LHS 1140b?


Michael Fidler April 20, 2017 at 5:20

Water worlds? Updated masses for TRAPPIST-1 planets.

Very interesting reading, but the most interesting part is the comment by Harry R Ray below the Planetaria article!
“Planet h is now UNQUESTIONABLY the most bizarre planet discovered to date. with a most likely mass of LESS THAN ONE TENTH THAT OF EARTH, and a radius exactly halfway between Mars and Earth, It CANNOT be the spherical “iceball” with little to no atmosphere as it is usually potrayed in artistd renditions. Neither can it be a MINI “mini-neptune” with a predominantly Hydrogen atmosphere. With a surface gravity THAT LOW combined with the ABSOLUTELY BRUTAL FLARING going on(extreme NOW according to Kepler data, and PROBABLY MUCH WORSE 3 billion years ago in its infancy, ALL OF ITS HYDROGEN MUST HAVE ESCAPES LONG AGO! What remains is something out of science fiction(LITERALLY: Robert Forward’s “Rocheworld”)! Due to its ridiculously LOW surface gravity(less than the MOON’s), TRAPPIST-1’s gravity pulls the starward hemosphere of TRAPPIST-1h TOWARD IT, forming a Fabrege egg-shaped “Eau Lobe”. Despite its 167K frigid temperature, the majority of its atmosphere would MIGRATE to the stellar point, providing an “insulating blanket” sufficient to keep the stellar point water in a permanently liquid form. The atmospheric surface pressure would be something akin to the surface pressure at the bottom of Challenger Deep in the Pacific Ocean. However, the surface pressure would be more akin to that of Venus at the terminator, and similarto our own at the anti-stellar point. If the atmosphere consists primarily of Oxygen, Carbon Dioxide, and Water vapor, there could even be an ice sheet at the anti-stellar point! SCIENCE FICTION WRITERS: GO NUTS!!!”

Now with several of these planets water worlds what would happen when they all line up? Could major tides occur or even water being transferred between planets! I have been fascinated by Total Solar Eclipse here on Earth but what surprised me was how large earthquakes and volcanic eruptions happen afterwords. Examples, when my wife and I watched the total solar eclipse in Davao, Philippines in March 18, 1988 over the next 3 years 3 large earthquakes went up the Philippine islands with a magnitude 7.8 earthquake striking Luzon on July 16, 1990. Then the second-largest volcanic eruption of the 20th century, and by far the largest eruption to affect a densely populated area, occurred at Mount Pinatubo Philippines on June 15, 1991.

A total solar eclipse occurred on February 26, 1979 in the pacific northwest states of Oregon and Washington, the following year on March 20, 1980, Mt St. Helens experienced a magnitude 4.2 earthquake and, on March 27, steam venting started. The eclipse had past directly over Mount St. Helens the year before and on May 18, 1980 the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event happened in the history of the United States.

A total solar eclipse occurred on July 20, 1963 crossed just north of Anchorage, Alaska and the Great Alaskan earthquake, occurred at 5:36 P.M. AST on Good Friday, March 27, 1964. Lasting four minutes and thirty-eight seconds, the magnitude 9.2 megathrust earthquake was the most powerful recorded in North American history, and the second most powerful recorded in world history!

So what will happen after the Great American Total Solar Eclipse on August 21, 2017 is anyone’s guess. Getting back to Trappist 1 and its tightly packed group of 7 planets, just what would happen when all of them line up? A beautiful solar eclipse of grand proportions, maybe planets switching positions in there orbits or changing mass between the different water worlds. So could the changing size and mass of these 7 planets be caused by you guessed it, a giant planetary alignment causing worlds in collision!!! Binary water world, volcanic explosions creating new Moons! Use your imagination, you might be surprised!!!


Harry R Ray April 20, 2017 at 13:32

A fascinating concept, but; alas, if water WERE to escape one planet because of the proximity of another, the other planet would be traveling WAY TOO FAST for the water to reach it.


Michael Fidler April 20, 2017 at 17:35

There is another reason they have such low density, artificial construction as in hollow Dyson spheres.


Michael Fidler April 21, 2017 at 10:52

Harry my wife liked the Fabrege egg-shaped “Eau Lobe”, but how do we know what the actual shape of the transits are? Just as the drawings of Saturn when the rings where not well resolved, could these odd discrepancy in measurements be caused by rings or binary planets or even ringworlds? http://galileo.rice.edu/images/things/huygens_phases1.gif
Since the shape of the object cannot be discerned in the transits it seems that higher resolution is needed in the curves of the individual transits.

Watched a good SciFi tonight that makes a good point, a Russian update on the Day the Earth Stood Still.
Attraction (2017)


Harry R Ray April 23, 2017 at 13:27

The “lobe” points TOWARD the star AT ALL TIMES! We ALWAYS see transits PERPENDICULAR to the stellar and anti-stellar points, so we are ALWAYS looking at the TERMINATOR, which would be PERFECTLY CIRCULAR AT ALL TIMES. That is why no professional astronomer has claimed that the planet is indeed egg-shaped. That may come in June when the Kepler data has been FULLY PROCESSED and(hpoefully)ENHANCED! If a PHASE-CURVE of the planet is visable in the data, the egg shape would show up then.


Michael April 24, 2017 at 9:34

This is unlikely as even Io or any of the other large moons of Jupiter show this feature, and they are in the grip of a powerful gravitation field gradient.


Harry R Ray April 24, 2017 at 17:55

TRAPPIST-1 is 70 times more massive than Jupiter. Jupiter raises “tides” 0f 70 meters on the SOLID surface of Io. I was making my projections on ONE: A thick envelope of GAS EQUIVALENT TO THAT OF VENUS being pulled toward TRAPPIST-1 so that the TROPOSPHERE would be close to 1000 Km deeper at the stellar point than at the anti-stellar point! This would be POSSIBLE because the GRAVITY at the top of the atmosphere is MUCH LESS THAN AT THE SOLID SURFACE OF IO! Once this happens, the thick “thermal envelope” at the stellar point would liquify ANY ICE surface at the stellar point, allowing the water to bulge, pushing the atmosphere even CLOSER to TRAPPIST-1. forcing it closer and closer to the planet’s Hill radius. Then, as Michael Fidler stated, certain interactions with the OTHER PLANETS COULD EVEN PRODUCE EXPULSION OF MATERIAL FROM THE PLANET, anthouhg it would probably ONLY be water Vapor that is expelled, and NOT liquid water itself.


Michael April 25, 2017 at 9:39

Although the star is 70 times more massive than Jupiter these worlds are further away so the tidal bulge will be not as pronounced, plus the worlds are much more massive than Io and so hold their shape much better.


john walker April 20, 2017 at 17:22

While I’m thankful for the webcast and especially to Dr.Milner for his inspiring support, why were TED level presentations (a couple were actual TED presentations) made here to a room full of academics? That was weird. Do we really need the rv method illustrated with a star and a hoola hoop? Hope that next year the level is pushed up a notch.


DJ Kaplan April 20, 2017 at 19:03

We are still finding stars smaller than our sun, with planets larger than our earth, at orbits closer than our own. That is, science has not found “Earth 2.0″ and that’s not the realm of science. The realm of science is to find out what is out there, whatever it is.

So if we practice analyzing distant atmospheres, whether the exoplanet is hostile to life as we know it or not, it’s still science vital.


Joe April 20, 2017 at 19:36

I have a job that allows me to telecommute. Therefore I have had the privilege of watching much of the Breakthrough Discuss Conference on Facebook Live today. It is quite interesting.

What is equally remarkable is the technology that allows me to “attend” this conference online. I am old enough to remember when teleconferences were a joke and my co-workers and I would bet on how many technical problems would occur, or whether the teleconference would come off at all. Those of us of a certain age would compare teleconferences to the “cone of silence” on the old “Get Smart” TV series. So it is really incredible to experience crisp, clear images, well chosen camera angles, and excellent sound quality at this teleconference.

If the Breakthrough Initiative displays the same level of competence with their starchip scheme as they have with this conference, they might well achieve their goal.


Sean Robert Meaney April 21, 2017 at 5:36

There are no ‘habitable’ planets around red dwarf stars simply because the ones in habitable zones are taking thousands of times the radiation we take on earth with a one watt bulb for light.
Can we drop gold in proxima centauri and get it burning brighter?


Adam April 21, 2017 at 19:51

Please unpack that statement a bit. The stellar wind might be higher, but the cosmic rays are actually less – thanks to all that stellar wind. There’s “radiation” and there’s “radiation”. Some are more potent and some less. As for the insolation, even the coolest Main Sequence stars look white hot to human eyes. The visual environment wouldn’t be noticeably different at the same total insolation level.


Ronald April 21, 2017 at 8:12

Just in, related to Breakthrough Listen:

Searching for ET: Breakthrough Listen initiative publishes initial results:

And the data themselves, 692 stars:


Michael Fidler April 21, 2017 at 10:25

Interesting the signals on 1381 mhz is GPS and FAA long range radar, but they should be running the Canceler?



Robin Datta April 21, 2017 at 9:31

A more inclusive and open system than Facebook would be a better choice.


Patient Observer April 21, 2017 at 11:27



Antonio April 22, 2017 at 3:04

Totally agree. And also I would prefer text over video, since me (and many other people) can’t barely understand spoken English but can read or at least machine-translate English text.


john walker April 21, 2017 at 12:58

Many thanks to Yuri Milner for his inspired support of this conference and the various Breakthrough endeavors.


David April 21, 2017 at 20:32

Thanks so much for this information Paul.


Alexander Tolley April 21, 2017 at 22:31

Lubin’s presentation was very slick, a real sales job. Watching it you would think that the project is difficult, but very doable, even the sail.

The list of upcoming chip-based sensors was very impressive. Seems like we should be making cubesats and nanosats with these instruments in a few years.

Lubin also mentioned the use of the technology for solar system exploration and commercialization. Jim Benford also emphasized this point in the last panel discussion.


Michael April 24, 2017 at 9:59

Commercialization is absolutely required, without this support it will take much, much longer to launch these probes.


ljk April 23, 2017 at 15:46

Odd and Baffling Behavior? Gathering Evidence for ET Civilizations

By Leonard David

April 22, 2017

Unexplained phenomena, strange behavior, and what kinds of signals might extraterrestrials generate?

Day Two of Breakthrough Discuss was held at Stanford University ending a ground-breaking conference that brought together the world’s leading astronomers, engineers, astrobiologists, and astrophysicists.

Full article here:


For more information, go to:


Note: All videos from the two-day event are available to view on the Breakthrough Facebook page. You can view by following this link:



ljk April 23, 2017 at 18:15

Suddenly, Alpha Centauri is a Popular Destination

Groups small and large set their sights on our neighboring star system.

By Elizabeth Howell

April 21, 2017

The launch of Breakthrough Starshot a year ago, backed by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, has re-opened the idea of exploring nearby stars—first by telescope, and eventually by spacecraft. While the group is holding a second “Breakthrough Discuss” conference this week to highlight its progress so far, other groups, large and small, are getting in on the action.

Starshot proposes sending a nano-spacecraft to the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, at 20 percent of the speed of light within 20 years. Last summer scientists reported finding a rocky planet in the habitable zone of Proxima Centauri, one of the stars in the system. Meanwhile, scientists at the Max Planck Institute in Germany were so inspired by the Starshot idea that they came up with a way to slow down the spacecraft once it reaches its destination, using stellar pressure. Such braking would be critical if the spacecraft is to take pictures or collect science data.

Full article here:


To quote:

Not every interstellar wannabe is funded by a billionaire or government agency. A project to find potentially habitable planets in the Alpha Centauri system plans a new try at Kickstarter crowdfunding, after an initial round raised just a third of the requested $1 million last year.

The money would be used for preliminary design of a 50-centimeter Earth-orbiting telescope, dubbed Project Blue, and planned for launch in 2020 on a two-year mission. The primary goal is to gaze at the triple-star Alpha Centauri system, which is roughly four light-years from Earth. Project Blue is also considering sponsorships and other ways to raise funds for the project, which is expected to cost between $25 million and $50 million.

Leader John Morse says that even though $1 million is only a fraction of what his BoldlyGo Institute needs to make Project Blue viable, crowdfunding would generate excitement and investment in the project from the outset.

“Crowdfunding is only one arrow in the quiver, but a crucial one as we seek to provide novel opportunities for the public to be engaged,” he says. A former NASA director of astrophysics, Morse says the institute’s goal is to raise money to augment NASA’s work in space science and flight research.


Andrew Palfreyman April 25, 2017 at 0:21

As an engineer who watched all of this two day event, I was most impressed with the way the project is developing. However, the level of detail is unsatisfactorily low to really bite down on. Take for example Zak Manchester’s noodlings with sail and beam shapes. Is there any way to access his research?


Alexander Tolley April 25, 2017 at 12:01

I agree. I think there was still a lot of hand waving with the sail technology. I also think that Lubin’s talk conflated beamed sails with his photonic propulsion ideas when talking about very rapid transit times to Mars.

Arguably, the Jim Benford’s experiments on microwave beamed sails is further advanced than these simulations.


ljk April 25, 2017 at 10:00

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