The European Southern Observatory (ESO) announced on Monday that their flagship telescope will receive significant upgrades that will enable it to better search for planets in the Alpha Centauri system. Their Chilean-based Very Large Telescope (VLT) will be the recipient of the upgrade through funding provided by the Breakthrough Initiative as part of their Starshot project.
The goal of the Breakthrough Starshot project is to send a small spacecraft to Alpha Centauri by way of laser propulsion. The group behind the $100 million dollar Starshot project, including Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking, believe that small spacecraft can be propelled through space at speeds of up to one-fifth the speed of light by way of energized photons within lasers.
The Alpha Centauri system is only four light years away from our own making it the ideal candidate for the experiment. The three stars within the Alpha Centauri system have historically proved to be a great hurdle for astronomers. The light pollution from the stars makes it extremely difficult to identify objects within the system.
The hardware improvements to the VLT provided by the funding will focus on filtering out infrared light from the stars within the system. This will provide astronomers with a better view of objects within the Alpha Centauri system. Alpha Centauri was in the news last year when astronomers were able to catch a glimpse of its first known planet. The discovery was made even more intriguing given that the planet was within an area of the solar system that scientists determined could support life.