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Massive Telescope Will Be Upgraded to Study the Nearest Exoplanets to Earth

Proxima b is the closest known exoplanet to our solar system. Now the Very Large Telescope will look for its neighbors.

One of the biggest space stories of 2016 was the discovery of the Earth-scale planet Proxima b in orbit around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Sun.

Located only 4.2 light years away, Proxima b is the nearest known exoplanet ever detected. The newly found world was pinpointed by a European Southern Observatory (ESO) team, and sparked a surge of interest about the planet's finer properties, including its potential to host life.


Now, the Very Large Telescope (VLT), a workhorse optical telescope located in Chile, has committed to the effort to characterize this tantalizing planet-next-door, and spot any other planets that might be orbiting Proxima Centauri.

Video: ESO/YouTube

ESO announced Monday that it would partner with Breakthrough Initiatives, a program founded in 2015 by billionaire entrepreneur and science advocate Yuri Milner, in upgrading the VISIR mid-infrared instrument on the VLT. Breakthrough Initiatives are designed to tackle ambitious scientific challenges, like interstellar travel and alien contact; Milner has already proposed a concept mission called Breakthrough Starshot, co-developed with physicist Stephen Hawking, which aims to traveling to the Proxima Centauri system.

READ MORE: New 'Starshot' Mission Aims to Send Tiny Spaceships to the Nearest Star System

But as the old adage goes, it's important to look before you leap, which is why Milner and ESO want to figure out what we might expect from this alien solar system were we to send spaceships there. Breakthrough Initiatives will contribute "a large fraction" of the funding to give the VLT mid-infrared instrument VISIR a makeover, including new sensors, calibrators, and a coronagraph that will help shade out some of Proxima Centauri's light. This will make it easier for the VLT to pick out any planets that might be orbiting it.

The new and improved instrument won't be ready until 2019. In the meantime, plenty of scientists are on the hunt for more clues about the intriguing system located one star over, so stay tuned.

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