The European Southern Observatory announced Tuesday that it would upgrade the Very Large Telescope in Chile in order for the instrument to be capable of searching for new planets in the Alpha Centauri star system.

In an official statement released by ESO, the agency through its Director General, Tim de Zeeuw, signed an agreement with the research and engineering program Breakthrough Initiatives to enhance the current functions of the Very Large Telescope located in Chile. It is established in the agreement that ESO and Breakthrough Initiatives will provide funds that will allow the improvement of the VLT Imager and Spectrometer for the mid-Infrared instrument.

The Alpha Centauri System
The Alpha Centauri System. Image credit: ESO.

The funds are oriented to the enhancement of the ability that the telescope has regarding the search for near planets specifically located in the Alpha Centauri star system, the closest stellar system that Earth has.

The funding of the project is made by ESO, the Breakthrough Initiatives and the collaborations from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking.

The discovery of Proxima B

This new project comes after the discovery of a new planet in 2016 from the Alpha Centauri system. The Proxima B planet was spotted in August last year, and it’s located about four light years from Earth.

According to researchers, Proxima B is also located in the most “habitable” zone of Alpha Centauri because that particular area has the range distances that suits the best the existence of liquid water on the planet’s surface. This discovery added interest to ESO and Breakthrough Initiatives’ intention to expand the capacities of the Very Large Telescope.

The spotting of Proxima B took about 15 years for the investigation team in Chile. They used a series of specialized instruments like the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) and the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS).

For quite some time, there were several recollections of data that suggested the presence of Proxima B, but there was not enough evidence to confirm the finding. There was also information regarding a second planet that could be orbiting near the Proxima B planet, although the spotting evidence wasn’t so reliable.

“The uneven and sparse sampling, combined with the longer term variability of the star, seem to be the reasons why the signal could not be unambiguously confirmed with pre-2016 data, rather than the total amount of data accumulated,” the investigation team wrote in the study published after the discovery of the planet.

The observation of planets from the Alpha Centauri system is very difficult due to the extreme brightness that is emanated from it. For this reason, the investigation team started to use mid-infrared wavelength range, for an easier observation of the system’s planets.

However, not even when the observation method changed, the spotting of space bodies improved significantly. That’s why the enhancing of the Spectrometer for mid-Infrared observations is a priority for both organizations. As part of this project, there is the inclusion of the coronagraphy method that reduces emanated brightness and automatically improves the possible spotting of new planets.

European Southern Observatory and Breakthrough Initiatives’expectations

ESO is one of the most prestigious organizations concerning ground-based space investigations and research, and it’s looking forward to made its VLT stronger than it already is.

It’s currently the most supported organization that performs this kind of investigation, as it is helped by more than 15 countries in which there are included Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Brazil, and the United Kingdom.

Very Large Telescope
A laser beam launched from VLT´s 8.2-metre Yepun telescope crosses the southern sky and creates an artificial star at 90 km altitude in the high Earth’s mesosphere.  Image credit: ESO.

ESO is famous for developing programs that allow scientists the possibility of making significant discoveries. Currently, the agency is located in three vital sites in Chile (La Silla, Paranal, and Chajnantor). In this South-American country is located the Very Large Telescope, the largest telescope specialized in sky observation during day-time.

The agency is looking forward to making this new upgrade a great innovation for their VLT but it is also aware that there is no security concerning the fulfilling of all the objectives.

“The probability that we’ll find a planet we can see is less than 50 percent. So there’s more of a chance we won’t see anything. Normally this is something funding agencies don’t [fund], but Breakthrough Initiatives have created the excitement and resources to do these kinds of things,” Markus Kasper, an ESO scientist, told The Verge.

The Breakthrough Initiatives program was created by science philanthropist Yuri Milner. The primary objective of Milner when he founded the program was to search for evidence that could prove the existence of life beyond Earth and also promote the debate regarding space topics.

The initial investment for the creation of this engineering program was of $100 million, but it has expanded in the two years that it has been operating. The principal objectives of this organization are the enabling of the ultra-rapid flights of unmanned probes as well as the beginning of programs regarding flyby missions to Alpha Centauri. This last goal is set to be accomplished within a generation time-span.

Source: ESO