Telescope to enhance ability to search for exoplanets around Alpha Centauri

By TSS Admin

Sometime in the not too distant future, scientists will be peering through VISIR into the Alpha Centauri system in search of planets. VISIR, which is short for VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared instrument, will be modified to look for and identify potentially habitable planets in the nearest star system to humanity’s star system.

Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri, which is 4.37 light-years away from Sol (Earth’s solar system), is a trinary star system. The three stars that comprise the Alpha Centauri system are Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Alpha Centauri C. Alpha Centauri A, which is a G-class star (G2V to be specific), is similar to Sol (Sol is the name of our parent star) and is about 4.3 light-years from Earth; Alpha Centauri B, which is a K-class star or faint red dwarf, is also about 4.3 light-years away and is the companion star of Alpha Centauri A; and Alpha Centauri C also known as a Proxima Centauri is also a red dwarf and the closest of the three stars to Earth’s solar system, and it orbits around the other two stars as a distant third companion. It is also the most faint of the three stars.

Breakthrough Starshot

With added incentive from the discovery of a planet orbiting Proxima Centauri in 2016, the European Southern Observatory signed an agreement with Breakthrough Initiatives to provide funds for the search for planets orbiting the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system.

Funding by Breakthrough to enhance VISIR’s ability to find planets will potentially return knowledge of the nearest exoplanets orbiting Alpha Centauri and lay the foundation for a possible first launch to the nearest solar system within the next few decades. The first mission, called Breakthrough Starshot, would include

…the ultra-fast light-driven nano-craft, miniature space probes attached to light-sails, traveling  to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour. Such a system would allow a flyby mission to reach Alpha Centauri in just over 20 years from launch.

Once there, pictures of the new-found exoplanets would be beamed back to Earth for study.

Future Challenges

Finding habitable exoplanets in other solar systems is an extremely difficult challenge. This is because of the brightness of the planetary system’s host star. A host star, like the three Alpha Centauri stars, outshine planets in the solar system because planets are too dim. However, the mid-infrared wavelength range will make observing exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system easier for scientists. This is because “the thermal glow from an orbiting planet greatly reduces the brightness gap between it and its host star.”

But despite the mid-infrared, each Alpha Centauri star will remain millions of times brighter than the planets that scientists are trying to locate and observe. This is where VISIR will utilize the coronagraphy method to reduce the stellar light of the Alpha Centauri stars. The coronagraphy method is used to see objects that reside very close to their parent star, for example, if an alien scientist was observing Mercury next to Sol.

Market Benefits

The mission of Breakthrough Initiatives, which includes such names as Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner, founder of DST Global, as board members, is to search for extraterrestrial life beyond this solar system. And so the organization will be providing a large fraction of the necessary technologies and development costs for this VISIR experiment; and the European Southern Observatory will be providing the telescope, technology, and time.

In addition, Kampf Telescope Optics (KTO) in Munich, Germany, the University of Liège (Belgium), and Uppsala University (Sweden) will be involved in the project. And so it is safe to say that the search for exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri system will be providing jobs in different industries for the next few years, if not the next few decades providing exoplanets are found.



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Photo credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO





Copyright ©2017 – The Systems Scientist




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