RELATED: Welcome to Proxima b, Our Nearest 'Earth-like' Neighbor
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.