The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has teamed up with Breakthrough Initiatives — a private firm dedicated to seeking life elsewhere in the big universe — to use its massive telescope in Chile to search for planets in the nearby star system Alpha Centauri.
Breakthrough Initiatives is host to Breakthrough Starshot, which aims to send space probes the size of a postage stamp to the Alpha Centauri system, the closest star system to Earth. This involves Proxima Centauri, the third and faintest star in the system discovered earlier this year.
The focus is a potentially rocky planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, called Proxima b, which makes its rounds in an area where its surface temperature might be conducive for liquid water and fuels the possibility of finding more potentially livable planets out there.
In the new partnership, the organization will help fund an upgrade to an instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, rendering it ideal for the job ahead.
Blinding Star Light
Updating the existing instrument on the VLT is deemed crucial in searching for the faint light of exoplanets, explained the ESO in a statement. Despite being close to Earth, the planet hunt around Alpha Centauri proves tricky enough given that the brightness of the stellar system’s two massive stars, namely Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, tends to overwhelm the light emerging from any orbiting bodies.
Even if one observes in mid-infrared wavelength, the star remains millions-fold brighter than the planets to be discovered, calling for “a dedicated technique to reduce the blinding stellar light.”
The VLT is currently made up of one main telescope and four auxiliary ones. Its instrument called VLT Imager and Spectrometer for Mid-Infrared (VISIR), tasked to amass light in that wavelength range, is the one to be upgraded.
The improved VISIR will boast of a coronagraph for blocking out sunlight and will be provided an adaptive optics system for correcting distortions of the starlight arising in our atmosphere.
The upgrade is projected to be completed in 2019, by which time the telescope will scour Proxima Centauri and its kin star systems for any habitable planets.
Life-Seeking Space Initiatives
Breakthrough Initiatives was founded in 2015 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia, aiming to explore the universe and seek scientific proof of life beyond Earth. Sitting on its board are Milner, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and renowned physicist Stephen Hawking.
Breakthrough Starshot is one of the group’s three programs at present. In April last year, Milner announced his ambitious $100 million research program behind the plan to send iPhone-sized, robot-like probes to neighboring stars in one generation.
Last year, too, the group announced Project Blue, which would launch a small, cost-effective telescope into Earth's orbit to capture the first ever visible-light image of exoplanets in Alpha Centauri.
The project is named as such as the mission aims to capture a "blue dot" picture that may signal the presence of oceans and atmosphere in the Alpha Centauri A and B system.