The world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory, the Very Large Telescope ,will get an upgrade to search for planets in the Solar System's neighboring star system, the Alpha Centauri.

The European Southern Observatory, which operates the telescope facility, and the Breakthrough Initiatives program agreed that the latter would fund an upgrade to the observatory's instrumentation.

The observatory will in turn search for exoplanets in the nearby Alpha Centauri. Such planets are potential targets for the miniature spacecraft that may eventually be launched by the Breakthrough Starshot initiative.

Breakthrough Initiatives

The Breakthrough Initiatives is a program backed by physicist Stephen Hawking and Russian tycoon Yuri Milner to search for extraterrestrial life in the universe. It was revealed last year that Hawking and Milner plan to send a fleet of nano spacecraft to Alpha Centauri.

The Breakthrough Starshot project, hailed as among the most ambitious space projects ever, plans to use an Earth-based giant laser to push the fleet of interstellar space probes to nearly the speed of light.

Very Large Telescope Upgrade

The Breakthrough Initiative and ESO agreement is for the program to fund the modification of the VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared instrument that is mounted at the VLT. The aim of the upgrade is to sharpen the observatory's ability to hunt planets that may possibly support life around the nearby stellar system.

Challenges In Detecting Exoplanets

Detecting a potentially habitable planet is enormously challenging because the brightness of the host star in the planetary system where the planet resides tends to overwhelm the relatively dimmer planets in the system.

Making observations in the mid-infrared wavelength range reduces the brightness gap between the orbiting planet and the host star. The host star, though, is still millions of times brighter compared with the planet that needs to be detected, and this poses challenges to VLT's existing mid-infrared instrument VISIR.

Giving VLT A New Pair Of Sunglasses

Breakthrough's answer to this would be to give VISIR an upgrade, a new hardware that will include adaptive optics that would counter the distortions of light passing through the Earth's atmosphere. It is comparable to giving the observatory a new pair of sunglasses to reduce the blinding light coming from the host star of a planetary system.

"The new hardware includes an instrument module contracted to Kampf Telescope Optics (KTO), Munich, which will host the wavefront sensor, and a novel detector calibration device," Breakthrough Initiatives said in a statement.

Coronagraphy For Hunting Potential Planets

The upgrade would allow VLT to employ the technique known as coronagraphy that would reduce the stellar light and reveal possible signal coming from potential exoplanets.

"Multi-star high-contrast imaging opens up a huge diversity of star systems, and Alpha Centauri in particular," Ruslan Belikov, from NASA's Ames Research Center, explained during a presentation at the American Astronomical Society on Jan. 6. "If you wanted to detect Earth 2.0 around the nearest sun-like star to us, then this technology is required."

The Breakthrough Initiatives will fund the large fraction of the technologies and development costs while ESO will provide the necessary observing capabilities and telescope time.

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