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Very Large Telescope
The ESO’s Very Large Telescope looms in the foreground of this image, and a star map has been superimposed on the night sky to show the locations of Alpha Centauri and Proxima Centauri. (ESO Photo)

One of the most powerful observing instruments on Earth, the Very Large Telescope, will join the search for potentially habitable planets around the Alpha Centauri star system.

The survey will take place in 2019 under the terms of an agreement signed by the European Southern Observatory, which operates the VLT in Chile, and by the Breakthrough Initiatives.

The Breakthrough Initiatives are funded by such luminaries as Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The effort includes in a radio search for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, known as Breakthrough Listen; and a plan to send swarms of nano-probes through the Alpha Centauri system, known as Breakthrough Starshot.

For months, the Breakthrough team has been working out the details for a campaign to look for worlds around Alpha Centauri, informally known as Breakthrough Watch. Such observations would complement Breakthrough Starshot.

Interest in the quest has risen due to the detection of a potentially habitable planet around Proxima Centauri, the third star in the system and the closest star beyond the sun. The VLT campaign could conceivably target Proxima Centauri, a faint red dwarf, as well as the system’s more sunlike stars, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B.

The agreement for using the VLT was signed late last year by ESO’s director general, Tim de Zeeuw; and by Pete Worden, chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and executive director of the Breakthrough Initiatives.

It provides funds for modifying the VLT Imager and Spectrometer for Mid-Infrared, or VISIR, an instrument mounted on the telescope. The plan calls for adding an advanced adaptive optics system to sharpen the telescope’s images, plus a coronagraph to blot out the glare coming from Alpha Centauri’s stars.

Such enhancements should make the VLT just powerful enough to detect the thermal signatures of planets orbiting the stars.

Germany’s Kampf Telescope Optics will work on the adaptive optics system, and the coronagraph will be developed jointly by Belgium’s University of Liege and Sweden’s Uppsala University. Breakthrough Initiatives will pay for a large fraction of the development costs, while ESO will provide the required observing capabilities and the telescope time in 2019.

The VLT campaign is likely to lead to follow-up observations. ESO is working on an even more powerful telescope array known as the European Extremely Large Telescope, or E-ELT. A mid-infrared instrument that’s designed to be installed on the E-ELT, known as METIS, should be able to study planets the size of Mars, if they exist in the Alpha Centauri system, and make out other planets that orbit stars beyond Alpha Centauri.

A different initiative, Project Blue, has been seeking funds to build a space telescope capable of capturing images of planets around Alpha Centauri. Project Blue launched a Kickstarter campaign for the effort, but fell short of its $1 million goal and canceled the campaign last month.

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