ESO joins search for habitable worlds

Breakthrough Starshot is an initiative seeking to explore the star system Alpha Centauri for potentially habitable exoplanets. The latest to join the search is the European Southern Observatory, which will offer the power of its Very Large Telescope to scour the skies.

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. The backdrop shows the sky around Alpha Centauri, which the VLT will search in the hunt for potentially habitable planets orbiting other stars.
Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is to offer its Very Large Telescope (VLT) to assist in the search for potentially habitable planets in the closest star system to the Sun.

The project Breakthrough Starshot was launched in April 2016 with the intention of launching a spacecraft to explore the star system Alpha Centauri “within a generation”.

In August 2016, exoplanet Proxima b was discovered around the star Proxima Centauri. Proxima Centauri is the third and faintest star in the Alpha Centauri system, and the discovery of a potentially habitable planet in orbit around it means there could be more to discover.

Following a new agreement with ESO, the VLT will join the search. The agreement amounts to funding to modify the VLT's VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) instrument to enhance its ability to search for exoplanets. The funding will also allow for telescope time to conduct a search around the Alpha Centauri star system in 2019.

One problem with searching for habitable planets is that the brightness of a planetary system’s host star can outshine any potential exoplanets in orbit. Funding for the VISIR instrument means it will not only be able to view in mid-infrared, but also develop and use a technique called coronagraphy to reduce the glare caused by the host star, thereby potentially revealing any undiscovered planets.

Carousel image: An artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. Will the VLT be able to help Breakthrough Starshot find another just like it?
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
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