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Breakthrough Starshot Project Enlists Massive Telescope To Look For Alien Planets

First Posted: Jan 10, 2017 02:46 AM EST
VLT To Search For Planets Around Alpha Centauri
ESO has signed an agreement with the Breakthrough Initiatives to adapt the Very Large Telescope instrumentation in Chile to conduct a search for planets in the nearby star system Alpha Centauri. Such planets could be the targets for an eventual launch of miniature space probes by the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative.
(Photo : European Southern Observatory (ESO)/YouTube screenshot)

The Breakthrough Starshot Project hosted by Breakthrough Initiatives, a private organization that is dedicated to searching for life elsewhere in the universe, has reportedly enlisted the help of a giant telescope in Chile to search for planets in the Alpha Centauri system, which is the nearest star system. The new collaboration will see Breakthrough Initiatives taking the help of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) that belongs to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) to study the planets in the Alpha Centauri system that orbit the host star Proxima Centauri.

Additionally, the new agreement between Breakthrough Initiatives and ESO will include upgrading an existing instrument on the VLT, so that it is appropriately enhanced to search for exoplanets that are alien worlds to humans. According to Space.com, the upgrade of VLT is scheduled to be completed by 2019, after which the massive telescope will be used for a careful search of the Proxima Centauri system. ESO has said that the planets that could be discovered with the help of the VLT could be the targets for an eventual launch of miniature space missions by the Breakthrough Starshot initiative.

"Detecting a habitable planet is an enormous challenge due to the brightness of the planetary system's host star, which tends to overwhelm the relatively dim planets," ESO said in a statement. "One way to make this easier is to observe in the mid-infrared wavelength range, where the thermal glow from an orbiting planet greatly reduces the brightness gap between it and its parent star. But even in the mid-infrared, the star remains millions of times brighter than the planets to be detected, which calls for a dedicated technique to reduce the blinding stellar light." This is where the upgraded VLT will step in, to aid in the search for exoplanets.

Incidentally, Breakthrough Initiatives was founded in 2015 by billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia. The organization's board also consists of celebrated astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

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