New Instrument Launched in the Search for Habitable Exoplanets
Exoplanet hunting has become a hot topic as of late, with the search for potentially habitable worlds piquing the interest of many scientists and researches. A new instrument designed to find habitable worlds in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system, began operations late last month, with project team members announcing it would now be in business.
The instrument, called NEAR (Near Earths in the Alpha Cen Region) is a thermal coronagraph installed on the Europena Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. These instruments work by blocking the light of super bright stars, allowing astronomers to see smaller, much dimmer planets in orbit.
Alpha Centauri is the nearest star system within our vicinity, comprising of a three-star system about 4.37 light-years from the sun. This system has been the subject of much curiosity among astronomers for being a place where hospitable worlds could be found.
In 2016, astronomers discovered an Earth-sized planet circling the smallest star in this system, Proxima Centauri. Known as Proxima B, this planet appears to reside in an area known as the habitable zone, a place which is just the right distance for water to remain stable on the planet’s surface.
With NEAR now in operation, it will greatly increase the chances of spotting exoplanets within this system, as the other two stars in Alpha Centauri, Proxima AB, are exceptionally bright, making it difficult to discover them without the advanced technology found in the coronagraph. NEAR is currently the only project that is capable of directly imaging a habitable exoplanet, making it an important tool for all future research.
NEAR will be utilized in a joint project of ESO and Breakthrough Watch, a program that hunts for potentially habitable worlds outside of our solar system. Breakthrough Watch is part of a larger initiative to search for alien life, which includes Breakthrough Listen and Breakthrough Starshot, a mission that aims to launch superfast probes to Proxima B and other exoplanets within the next 30 years.