ESO will upgrade its Very Large Telescope to hunt for exoplanets

The upgraded VLT will look for planets orbiting our neighboring star system, the Alpha Centauri.

Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope is getting an upgrade. ESO signed an agreement with Breakthrough Initiatives, a program created to search for extraterrestrial intelligence, to modify its infrared instrument called VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared). Once it's done, the observatory in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile will easily be able to spot exoplanets in the Alpha Centauri. According to ESO, the astronomers' discovery of a habitable planet in our neighboring star system late last year "adds even further impetus to this search."

Exoplanets are hard to spot since the brightness of the massive stars they orbit tend to overwhelm their presence, making them hard to see from our little corner in the universe. While observing them in infrared makes exoplanets easier to detect, the upgrade will give VISIR an even more powerful technique called coronagraphy. It greatly reduces stellar light to make their comparably tinier planets more visible to the telescope.

Breakthrough Initiatives -- backed by Stephen Hawking, Mark Zuckerberg and Russian tech investor Yuri Milner -- will treat any habitable planet VLT finds in the Alpha Centauri as a possible destination for the spacecraft it plans to make. The program aims to develop a "nanocraft" fast enough to travel to the star system, and it wants to reach that goal within one generation.