Astronomers around the world were thrilled in 2016 when the European Southern Observatory announced the discovery of an exoplanet around Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Earth. The Centauri system contains a few extra stars. Now the very large telescope (VLT) has gotten an upgrade that will help it sweep these other stars to find evidence of exoplanets.
Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star located 4.2 light-years from Earth. Alpha Centauri consists of two larger stars located about 4.37 light-years from Earth. Centauri A is a little bigger and brighter than the sun, while Centauri B is smaller and colder. While the exoplanet around Proxima Centauri is in the "habitable zone of the star", the red dwarf is very different from ours. Many scientists believe that Proxima Centauri's radiation and solar flares make life impossible on Proxima Centauri. This might not be the case for planets that may exist around Alpha Centauri A and B.
The VLT, a network of four eight-meter telescopes in Chile, already had the ability to observe the universe in mid-infrared wavelengths. He joins the hunt for exoplanets with the addition of an instrument called NEAR (Near Earths in the AlphaCen region) which makes it much more sensitive.
The planets orbiting the stars are theoretically easier to find, but the light of the Centaurs A and B makes the light relatively weak of an invisible planet. NEAR is an infrared coronograph that filters the light of a star, leaving only light from other objects in a solar system. This differs from traditional methods of detecting exoplanets, which rely on the analysis of their gravitational effects on a star or on the obscuration of starlight as the planets pass in front of it. NEAR could capture real images of an exoplanet.
The European Southern Observatory, which operates the VLT, estimates that NEAR will be sensitive enough to detect a small rocky planet about twice the size of the Earth. Most of the exoplanets detected by astronomers are much larger, but Alpha Centauri is a great place to look for smaller ones because they are so close. The navigation will not be fluid until the end. Alpha Centauri is a binary system. We do not know how planetary systems operate around binary stars, or even their existence.
The NEAR system has completed its first campaign of observation earlier this month. Now, it is up to scientists to look at the data to see if they have found traces of exoplanets around the stars.