Published: Fri, January 13, 2017
Research | By Elizabeth Houston

Giant Telescope to Search for Alien Life in Alpha Centauri

Giant Telescope to Search for Alien Life in Alpha Centauri

For the Breakthrough Iniative's Starshot program, which has an audacious aim of sending tiny robotic probes to not only visit, but also to return from a trip to the Alpha Centauri system within a generation, knowing the location of any potential exoplanets in the system is crucial.

Starshot, which was funded by billionaire Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking, will provide the money that will allow the infrared telescope to be adapted to better detect all the less visible planets, stated ESO in a press release on Monday. While the orbit might be temperate due to the nature of the Proxima Centauri (a red dwarf), the proximity means it's probably being slammed by ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star.

The European Southern Observatory will search for habitable planets around Alpha Centauri - the closest star outside our Solar System - using its Very Large Telescope.

The Breakthrough Initiative and ESO agreement is for the program to fund the modification of the VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared instrument that is mounted at the VLT. Plus finding a planet in a star's habitable zone is far from a guarantee that the world hosts life. Astronomers look at stars through the mid-infrared wavelength range to help tamp down the brightness from the star.

The upgrade would allow VLT to employ the technique known as coronagraphy that would reduce the stellar light and reveal possible signal coming from potential exoplanets. Traditionally applied to the sun to aid observation of the corona, the sun's outer atmosphere, astronomers have only recently started to apply the technique to attempt direct photography of exoplanets. The University of Liège (Belgium) and Uppsala University (Sweden) will work together to develop a new coronagraph.

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That next generation may come as soon as 2024, when the ESO hopes the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), now under construction, will start collecting its first light.

"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", Breakthrough Initiatives said in a statement. This craft could reach Alpha Centauri in just 20 years and could be launched relatively soon.

But the Very Large Telescope won't be strong enough to look beyond Alpha Centauri for planets, so the observatory is building an Extremely Large Telescope to handle that job.

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. 2019 might not bring the announcement of a planet the size of Earth, but it could tell us the Alpha Centauri system has more planets than we know about right now.

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