The Very Large Telescope in Chile is getting an upgrade that will allow it to hunt for planets in the next star system over, Alpha Centauri. The new upgrade should allow the telescope to find any planets that might be in the habitable zone of the Alpha Centauri system, providing a target for a future interstellar mission.
By Avery Thompson
Spotting a planet orbiting another star is extremely difficult. Stars are so bright that it’s almost impossible to find a dim planet next to them. One way that astronomers can to overcome this problem is by using observations in infrared light rather than visible light. In infrared, the brightness gap between a planet and its host star is significantly reduced, making it easier to spot the planet, even with the bright star close by.
The Very Large Telescope has a pretty nice infrared detector, called VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-InfraRed). VISIR is great at taking infrared photos of the cosmos, but it’s not equipped specifically to hunt for exoplanets. That’s why the instrument is getting some modifications, courtesy of the Breakthrough Initiatives.
The Breakthrough Initiatives are providing much of the funding for the VLT to get a series of upgrades, such as adaptive lasers to help filter out atmospheric distortion and a coronagraph to block starlight. These upgrades will enable VISIR to spot any planets orbiting the three stars in Alpha Centauri, our nearest stellar neighbor.
The upgraded VLT is scheduled to started hunting for planets in 2019. If it manages to find one, a newly discovered planet could become the destination for the Breakthrough Initiatives’ Starshot project, which seeks to launch a small spacecraft to another star sometime in the next few decades.
Image credit: G. Hüdepohl/ESO
This article was originally written for and published by Popular Mechanics USA.