The hunt for alien worlds under the aegis of Breakthrough Starshot has picked up speed with European Southern Observatory inking a deal with the project to search for potentially habitable planets in Alpha Centauri.
Under the deal, the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile will be modified such that it can peak at the nearest star system to Earth and search for those potentially habitable alien worlds – a step towards the eventual goal of embarking on an interstellar journey. The agreement between Breakthrough Starshot and ESO will ensure funding for the modification of VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) instrument such that it garners enhanced ability to search for alien worlds around Alpha Centauri.
Under the deal, Breakthrough Initiatives will pay for a large fraction of the necessary technologies and development costs for such an experiment, and ESO will provide the required observing capabilities and time.
A challenge that makes it particularly hard to detect habitable planets around a star is the brightness of the star and its capability to overwhelm the optical instruments that are pointed at it for observations. One way to make this easier is to observe in the mid-infrared wavelength range, where the thermal glow from an orbiting planet greatly reduces the brightness gap between it and its host star. But even in the mid-infrared, the star remains millions of times brighter than the planets to be detected, which calls for a dedicated technique to reduce the blinding stellar light.
The Breakthrough Starshot project notes that the existing mid-infrared instrument VISIR on the VLT will provide such performance if it were enhanced to greatly improve the image quality using adaptive optics, and adapted to employ a technique called coronagraphy to reduce the stellar light and thereby reveal the possible signal of potential terrestrial planets.
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. In addition, there are plans for a new coronagraph to be developed jointly by University of Liège (Belgium) and Uppsala University (Sweden).
Starshot, which is backed by internet billionaire Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking. The project also intends to launch a nano spacecraft to sun’s nearest neighbor in the hunt for possible alien life and if not then possibly habitable planets. With ESO on board, astronomers will be in a better position to chose a target planet to which the probe will be sent.