The Very Large Telescope (VLT) may sound like the name of a children’s toy, but it’s actually the world’s most advanced optical instrument, made up of four telescopes which, when working together, can see details up to 25 times finer than with one instrument on its own.
Even with that level of precision, however, the VLT still can’t get a clear picture of Alpha Centauri, the star system closest to Earth—so it’s getting an upgrade.
The European Southern Observatory (ESO), the astronomical research organization which houses the VLT, announced this week that it was transforming the telescope into a planet hunter by improving its detection of mid-infrared wavelengths of light. This update is crucial because Alpha Centauri stars are so bright that normal telescopes can’t detect the dimmer planets around them.
VLT’s spectrometer, which measures the intensity of light, will get a new sensor capable of blocking out the majority of light from a star so it can see orbiting planets. The instrument will also get a new “detector calibration device,” which will help make the telescope’s observations more precise.
ESO’s partner in this venture is Breakthrough Initiatives, a program founded in 2015 by internet investor and philanthropist Yuri Milner to explore the universe and seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth.
Breathrough Initiatives’ marquee project, Breakthrough Starshot, aims to transport a small vehicle to Alpha Centauri using a giant laser from Earth. Theoretically, photons from a powerful enough laser could propel a spacecraft up to one-fifth the speed of light, allowing it to reach Alpha Centauri in about 20 years.
Once all the updates are completed (hopefully by 2019) ESO says it will allow Breakthrough Initiatives to use VLT for observing Alpha Centauri.
Breakthrough Initiatives is teaming up with ESO because the organization has already had some success exploring Alpha Centauri—last year, ESO discovered a rocky, Earth-sized planet orbiting around Proxima Centauri (the smallest star within the system and the closest one to Earth). The planet, named Proxima b, was located in Alpha Centauri’s habitable “Goldilocks zone,” the region that theoretically has just the right conditions to find liquid water on a planet’s surface.
Despite all of these promising developments, there’s no guarantee that ESO and Breakthrough Initiatives will be able to find or visit habitable planets—Alpha Centauri gets blasted with harmful solar radiation, and interstellar gas and dust could damage a spacecraft before it even reached the star system.
As such, while ESO scientists are excited about the new telescope, they also have realistic expectations.
“The probability that we’ll find a planet we can see is less than 50 percent,” Markus Kasper of the ESO told The Verge. “So there’s more of a chance we won’t see anything.”