Breakthrough Discuss Conference

April 20-21, 2017

Stanford University


Breakthrough Discuss is an annual academic conference focused on life in the Universe and novel ideas for space exploration. See the overview below for this year’s content.

Facebook Live

The conference will be livestreamed on Facebook:


This google doc contains a detailed schedule of the speakers and panels during Breakthrough Discuss.


Breakthrough Discuss 2017 is hosted by Stanford University's Department of Physics and sponsored by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the Breakthrough Initiatives.


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 away (25 trillion miles). 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 possibilities for life in our galactic neighborhood: 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 One Chair:

  • Olivier Guyon


  • David Charbonneau, Harvard
  • Lisa Kaltenegger, Cornell

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 Two Chair:

  • Jill Tarter


  • Tabetha Boyajian, LSU
  • Andrew Siemion, UCB
  • Jason Wright, PSU
  • Shelley Wright, UCSD

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 Three Chair:

  • Avi Loeb


  • Phil Lubin, UCSB
  • Zac Manchester, Harvard
  • Mason Peck, Cornell