The Breakthrough Starshot initiative is looking for exciting interstellar destinations and has teamed up with one of the most powerful observatories on the planet to seek out exoplanets around a star system right next door.

Backed by theoretical physics heavyweight Stephen Hawking and funded by venture capatalist Yuri Milner, the mind-blowing $100 million project hopes to send nano-probes across the interstellar expanse to the neighboring star system of Alpha Centauri. The project, which currently envisages these tiny robotic spacecraft being propelled by a powerful laser system, needs to first establish if there's something worth-while exploring at Alpha Centauri, so it has teamed up with the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile to start reconnoitering the system in hopes of finding worlds, particularly ones with a habitable flavor.

Key to the agreement signed on Monday is the modification of the VLT's VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) instrument to boost its ability to see small worlds orbiting very close to Alpha Centauri's twin stars. Last year, a potentially habitable exoplanet was discovered inside the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri's "habitable zone." That world was dubbed "Proxima b." Proxima Centauri is believed to be gravitationally bound to the Alpha Centauri system, making it a triple star system. Where there's one potentially habitable world, there's likely more, hence everyone's interest in the sun's nearest stellar neighbor.

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For any small rocky exoplanet to be considered "habitable," the world needs to orbit within its parent star's habitable zone. This general region is the distance in which it's neither too hot or too cold for liquid water to exist on that planet's surface. Liquid water is a requirement for life (as we know it), so finding a planetary body of similar dimensions as Earth inside the habitable zone of another star is cause for great excitement — alien life may thrive in such a location and, looking far into the future, we may someday have the technology to travel to and set up home on these worlds.

And Breakthrough Starshot could be our first tentative step in that long journey to another interstellar destination. But first, we need to find more travel destinations like Proxima b.

With the upgraded VISIR instrument, this agreement provides funding for VLT astronomers to carry out an exhaustive search program in 2019. During this campaign, astronomers will look deep into Alpha Centauri to seek out the thermal glow (which will generate an infrared signal) of any planets orbiting close to the stars. However, the light from the star will completely overwhelm such a signal, so VISIR employs the aid of a coronagraph that blocks the light of a star so that any orbiting planets can be seen. In addition, the VLT uses adaptive optics to remove the interference of turbulence in the Earth's upper atmosphere, thereby boosting the telescope's power.

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Although Alpha Centauri is "only" 4.4 light-years away (and Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light-years away) — a distance that is pretty much on our galactic doorstep — directly imaging the infrared signal of an exoplanet at that distance is right on the edge of the VLT's capabilities. But there's an even more powerful, and potentially revolutionary, observatory under construction. Called the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), this huge telescope also in Chile will have a single 40-meter primary mirror (compare that with the VLT's array of four 4.2-meter mirrors) that will be able to probe deeper into the Milky Way, directly resolving nearby exoplanets with relative ease. The E-ELT is expected to see first light in 2024.

Breakthrough Starshot may be a small step in our interstellar quest to physically explore habitable worlds in our galaxy, but it's already inspiring huge strides in the methods we use to find these exciting new worlds, starting with the VLT.

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