A "Breakthrough" to Search for Planets in Closest Star System to Earth

The agreement will see the VLT's VISIR instrument modified to search for planets in Alpha Centauri

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.

In the meantime, the team plans to use tools on the ground to explore Alpha Centauri's contents, though these too are in need of some cutting-edge upgrades.

The ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile will be modified with a new imager and spectrometer called the VISIR that will parse infrared light into its component wavelengths, allowing it to better differentiate stellar light and more easily find planets. The ESO partnered with observatories around the world last summer to announce the discovery of Proxima b, a roughly Earth-sized rocky planet orbiting one of the Centauri system's three stars. While it is mainly used to search for distant exoplanets, spotting such bodies can hard because host stars tend to outshine and block out the rocky worlds.

The European Southern Observatory - an global research organization that champions ground-based astronomy - plans to turn one of its giant telescopes into an even more superior planet hunter. At about 4.3 light-years away, it is the closest system to the Earth and made news a year ago when astronomers discovered an Earth-like planet, Proxima B, floating around Proxima Centauri, one of the three stars in the system. The new instrument will be developed by a team of engineers from Belgium's University of Liege and the Uppsala University in Sweden.

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"Multi-star high-contrast imaging opens up a huge diversity of star systems, and Alpha Centauri in particular", said Ruslan Belikov, from NASA's Ames Research Center, according to Tech Times. Since Proxima Centauri is seven times smaller than the sun, the planet is likely in the "Goldilocks Zone", the region around a star that has just the right conditions to find liquid water on a planet's surface.

"It's important for us to be aware of what kinds of objects are present beyond our solar system, since we are now beginning to think about potential interstellar space missions, such as Breakthrough Starshot", study lead author Julia Zachary told Space.com.

Founded by Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, the Breakthrough Initiatives project is an attempt to answer the question, are we alone in the universe? The hardware consists of KTO, Kampf Telescope Optics, and Munich that will host both calibration detector device and wave front sensor.

A big part of the Breakthrough Initiative is a program to send tiny probes to visit newly found, potentially inhabitable planets. 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. Breakthrough Initiatives event in NY.

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