Giant Telescope To Seek Habitable Planets in Alpha Centauri

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Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory say they will use one of their high-powered tools to search for inhabitable planets near Earth.

The announcement this week came as part of a partnership with the Breakthrough Initiatives, a group that describes itself as “a program of scientific and technological exploration, probing the big questions of life in the universe: Are we alone? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Can we make the great leap to the stars?”

To help answer those questions, the two have teamed up for a multipronged project to visit Alpha Centauri that will last years. As a first step, the ESO will try to identify how many and what kinds of planets may be out in our stellar neighborhood.

Beginning in 2019 the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile will begin taking a very close look at the Alpha Centauri star system. At about 4.3 light-years away, it is the closest system to the Earth and made news last year when astronomers discovered an Earth-like planet, Proxima B, floating around Proxima Centauri, one of the three stars in the system. The other two stars in the system are a binary pair, named Alpha Centauri A (also named Rigil Kentaurus) and Alpha Centauri B. These two spin around each other every 79 years, separated by about the same distance as our sun and Pluto.

Among these three stars there’s the potential for lots of other planets, so the agreement will provide funding to pay for some modifications to the ESO’s VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) instrument. The changes will provide a new set of glasses that should make it easier for VISIR to spot any other potentially inhabitable planets in the system. The agreement also provides for telescope time, which is expensive, to allow a careful search beginning in 2019.

A big part of the Breakthrough Initiative is a program to send tiny probes to visit newly found, potentially inhabitable planets. It sounds crazy, but physicists like Stephen Hawking say the project is feasible potentially within this generation.

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