The Very Large Telescope in Chile will be modified to be able to better spot habitable planets around distant stars

Very Large Telescope upgrade enhances our hunt for new Earth

Image credit: ESO

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile will receive an upgrade to be able to better detect potentially habitable planets in Alpha Centauri as part of a deal with Breakthrough Initiative, which plans to send a life-searching micro-spacecraft into the nearest star system.

As part of the project, the VISIR instrument (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared), which is part of the VLT, will be modified in order to be able to better detect potentially habitable planets in the star system some 4.37 light-years away from the Earth.

Breakthrough Initiative, funded by billionaire Yuri Milner and supported by physicist Stephen Hawking, will fund the upgrade.

Detecting habitable planets in distant star systems is extremely complicated as the planets are hidden in the bright light of their particular stars. The mid-infrared wavelength range makes it possible to find those planets as the difference in the thermal glow is smaller. Still, however, the planets are millions of times less bright than the stars.

The new technology to be developed for VISIR will enable capturing clearer images with the help of adaptive optics and the use of a method known as coronography, which reduces stellar light making the planets more visible.

ESO and Breakthrough agreed to dedicate time for observations in 2019.

A new coronograph will be developed jointly by University of Liège (Belgium) and Uppsala University (Sweden). Germany’s Kampf Telescope Optics will provide an instrument module for a new wavefront sensor and detector calibration device.

Breaktrough Initiative, launched in April 2016, plans to send a large amount of chip-sized spacecraft powered by massive sails and Earth-based lasers to Alpha Centauri at some point in the middle of this century. The spacecraft would capture images of the pre-selected potentially habitable planets and return to Earth 25 years later.

Work on VISIR will inform design of the METIS instrument, which is planned for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), now under construction in Chile.

Studying potentially habitable planets orbiting other stars further out in the Milky Way will be among the main scientific goals of the E-ELT. The huge size of the E-ELT should allow METIS to detect and study exoplanets the size of Mars orbiting Alpha Centauri, if they exist, as well as other potentially habitable planets around other nearby stars.

Interest in exploring the Sun’s nearest neighbour has increased since scientists announced last year that they had discovered evidence of an Earth-sized planet circling Proxima Centauri, a star in the Alpha Centauri system.

E&T spoke to Pete Worden, the Breakthrough Starshot project’s director and former head of Nasa Ames Research Centre at the Space4Inspiration conference in London in September last year.

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