Once all the updates are completed (hopefully by 2019) ESO says it will allow Breakthrough Initiatives to use VLT for observing Alpha Centauri. The basic goal of the program is to prove the idea of nanocraft that would cause a first launch to Alpha Centauri.
"The agreement provides funds for the VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) instrument, mounted at ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) to be modified", the ESO and Breakthrough Initiatives said in a joint statement.
Breakthrough Initiatives is teaming up with ESO because the organization has already had some success exploring Alpha Centauri-last year, ESO discovered a rocky, Earth-sized planet orbiting around Proxima Centauri (the smallest star within the system and the closest one to Earth). One of the main difficulties in hunting for habitable planets is the blinding light of the parent star that drowns out the comparably fainter body.
Looking at star systems in the infrared spectrum "greatly reduces the brightness gap" between planets and stars, but planets are still quite a bit cooler than their hosts, which remain millions of times brighter.
The Alpha Centuari system might be the closest to Earth, but it is still a mighty journey, some 25 trillion miles (4.37 light years) away. For instance, it may allow the VLT to employ the technique known as coronagraphy, which reduces stellar light and could reveal signals coming from potential exoplanets. Among the new upgrades will be an instrument module, "which will host the wavefront sensor, and a novel detector calibration device". It's possible astronomers won't find anything at all, or the planets they do find won't be located in the habitable zones of these stars.
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Founded by Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, the Breakthrough Initiatives project is an attempt to answer the question, are we alone in the universe?
Of course, finding these planets at Alpha Centauri is just the first step, and there are still many unknowns about what's out there. Proxima b, for instance, is so close to Proxima Centauri that it gets blasted with way more solar radiation than we receive on Earth. For instance, interstellar gas and dust would likely cause such a spacecraft traveling at high speeds to deteriorate significantly on its way to Alpha Centauri, according to a recent study.
A new coronograph is part of the upgrade plans of the ESO.
It will fund a "large fraction" of the necessary technologies and development costs to enhance the Very Large Telescope's image quality through upgrades to its adaptive optical capabilities. "Normally this is something funding agencies don't [fund], but Breakthrough Initiatives have created the excitement and resources to do these kinds of things". "This information could indicate habitability, although the detection of biomarkers will have to wait for the next generation", ESO Instrument Operation Team project manager Markus Kasper tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.