One of the most powerful telescopes will improve to search for exoplanets

The European southern Observatory, an international research organization that conducts the most advanced astronomical projects — plans to turn one of his gigantic and very powerful telescopes even more powerful tool to search for exoplanets. Specifically, we are talking about Very Large Telescope (VLT), located in Northern Chile. Modernization of the telescope will allow increasing the efficiency of the search for exoplanets around the stars of the constellation Centauri nearest star system.

Located just over 4 light years from us triple star system alpha Centauri, educated guesses of scientists, may be the house unseen until now inhabited planets. If such worlds do exist, then the European southern Observatory is confident that the telescope VLT will be able directly to detect them after his basic tools will get the necessary updates.

For help in collecting the necessary funds for the modernization of the Observatory addressed to the independent research group Breakthrough Initiatives created in the framework of the program proposed by the Russian businessman Yuri Milner in 2015 and aimed at search for extraterrestrial civilizations. The group Breakthrough Initiatives are also very interested in learning this system and even plans to send an unmanned spacecraft for this generation. The project, called Breakthrough Starshot, implies sending to alpha Centauri a tiny camera with a very powerful ground-based laser. Theoretically, the photons of this powerful laser will be able to disperse tiny spacecraft to 1/5 the speed of light, which will allow him to reach the desired destination in just 20 years.

In other words, it is not surprising that Breakthrough Initiatives is very interested in finding planets within the alpha Centauri system, because opening them will automatically make them excellent targets for project Breakthrough Starshot. Currently, astronomers know of only one planet in this system. Last year near the star Proxima Centauri (which is itself a small star system and the nearest to our system of stellar object) was discovered a small earth-like planet. The object, dubbed Proxima b, was very interested in scientists, as it is located in the so-called habitable zone of its star. We are talking about a region where the surfaces of the planets water can exist in liquid form. Since water is a critical component of the emergence and maintenance of life here on Earth, then it would be foolish to deny the possibility that its presence on other planets could play the same role.


The System Alpha Centauri

Update telescope VLT, which will require a couple of years for completion, will be primarily focused on the modernization of scientific equipment VISIR. This tool is used to find and monitor objects in the middle IR-range — the type of radiation that cannot be seen by the unaided eye, but it is due to the heat radiated various space objects. Tracking and search for planets in the visible range of the spectrum may be a very difficult task, as the intensity of the star light is so great that blocks the light emitted by planets. The observations for these objects in the mid-IR range allows to reduce the large difference in the brightness of stars and planets and noting the presence of the latter.

And yet the stars are very bright even when observing them in the mid-IR range. That is why the VISIR instrument requires an additional update to make it sensitive enough to detect the planet around two stars – alpha Centauri A and B — luminosity equivalent of the sun. VISIR for these purposes will get a new sensor and a software update that will allow it to use the method of coronary angiography. Thanks to him you can block a greater amount of the luminosity of the star, in order to better see the existing near her planet. In addition, the tool will get a new “calibration device” which will help to make the observation telescope more accurate. Once the upgrade is completed telescope, the European southern Observatory will provide access to VLT group Breakthrough Initiatives, which will monitor the system alpha Centauri. Presumably it will happen in 2019.

Of course, search for possible planets in alpha Centauri is only the first step towards the study of this system, and there can hide a multitude of equally interesting secrets. Perhaps astronomers and did not find or will find planets not in the habitable zones of these stars. In addition, the detection of a planet in the habitable zone of a star does not necessarily guarantee that this world can sustain life. For example, the exoplanet Proxima b is so close to the star Proxima Centauri that radiation sterilizes the latter actually one of its sides.

Again, the idea is to visit one of these worlds is not so easy task, but with the current point of view is even more fantastic. Project Breakthrough Starshot must overcome so many difficulties and solve many questions that the flight to alpha Centauri is seen while it is unlikely, at least in our time with you. For example, according to recent studies, the same interstellar gas and dust can very quickly disorient a tiny spacecraft moving at 1/5 the speed of light.

However, at stake are big bets, so the European southern Observatory very grateful for the help in financing of the modernization of his telescope.

“The probability that we find a planet (or planets) is less than 50 percent. So, in other words, the probability of detection is much lower than the probability of detection. Usually under such conditions, the funding agencies are not ready to invest on such projects, but the project Breakthrough Initiatives, we were able to obtain all the necessary funds and resources for their studies”.