Breakthrough Initiatives and the European Southern Observatory announced on Monday an agreement to upgrade the instruments of the organization’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile.
The objective of this initiative is to enhance the telescope’s capabilities so it is adequate and powerful enough to search for habitable planets in Alpha Centauri, the Earth’s nearest neighboring star system.
While this first stage of Breakthrough Initiative’s Starshot program involves only optical scouting, the idea is to eventually launch advanced nano spacecraft to Alpha Centauri to get an even closer look at these potential new homes for humanity.
ESO’s VLT will get an enhanced VISIR instrument
The agreement signed by the ESO and Breakthrough Initiatives involves the upgrade of the VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-infrared (VISIR) device, mounted on the observatory’s telescope.
ESO’s current equipment is quite powerful. In fact, it is the most advanced of its kind, hosting two survey telescopes on its Paranal, Chile facilities: the VLT for visible light search and VISTA for hunting in the infrared spectrum.
However, the instruments on the VLT can only see so far, and they present limitations out of its intended visual scope. The optical upgrades courtesy of Breakthrough’s Starshot program will vastly enhance the telescope’s reach.
The ESO faces challenges ahead of its Alpha Centauri planet hunt
Under current conditions, the VLT can barely distinguish the planets in Alpha Centauri. The three-star system is, at times, too bright for the telescope as it casts too much light on the planets in orbit.
Last year, the ESO discovered Proxima B, a potentially habitable planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, the farthest star of the system. On the current visible light spectrum, is little the information scientists can gather of the new world.
Therefore, researchers decided to take on this challenge using coronography, a technique that consists of blocking the light from stars, so planets become more easily observable.
A new coronograph is part of the upgrade plans of the ESO. The new instrument will be developed by a team of engineers from Belgium’s University of Liege and the Uppsala University in Sweden.
What is Breakthrough Initiatives?
Breakthrough Initiatives consist of a series of programs created and funded by the philanthropist Yuri Milner, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.
Breakthrough Starshot currently focuses on observation, but it has far-reaching plans to launch nano spacecraft to Alpha Centauri looking for planets suitable for human life.
Other two programs exist with more ambitious goals: Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Message, which consist on searching for signals and sending radio messages into space, hoping they will find or reach an alien civilization.