Friday, 20 January 2017

Breakthrough Initiative Are We Alone? VLT to Search for Planets in Alpha Centauri System

Are We Alone?

First a reproduction of an open letter , then a news report!

Now is the time to find out

Who are we?
A mature civilization, like a mature individual, must ask itself this question. Is humanity defined by its divisions, its problems, its passing needs and trends? Or do we have a shared face, turned outward to the Universe?
In 1990, Voyager 1 swiveled its camera and captured the ‘Pale Blue Dot’ - an image of Earth from six billion kilometers away. It was a mirror held up to our planet - home of water, life, and minds. A reminder that we share something precious and rare.
But how rare, exactly? The only life? The only minds?
For the last half-century, small groups of scientists have listened valiantly for signs of life in the vast silence. But for government, academia, and industry, cosmic questions are astronomically far down the list of priorities. And that lengthens the odds of finding answers. It is hard enough to comb the Universe from the edge of the Milky Way; harder still from the edge of the public consciousness.
Yet millions are inspired by these ideas, whether they meet them in science or science fiction. Because the biggest questions of our existence are at stake. Are we the Universe’s only child - our thoughts its only thoughts? Or do we have cosmic siblings - an interstellar family of intelligence? As Arthur C. Clarke said, “In either case the idea is quite staggering.”
That means the search for life is the ultimate ‘win-win’ endeavor. All we have to do is take part.
Today we have search tools far surpassing those of previous generations. Telescopes can pick out planets across thousands of light years. The magic of Moore’s law lets our computers sift data orders of magnitude faster than older mainframes - and ever quicker each year.
These tools are now reaping a harvest of discoveries. In the last few years, astronomers and the Kepler Mission have discovered thousands of planets beyond our solar system. It now appears that most stars host a planetary system. Many of them have a planet similar in size to our own, basking in the ‘habitable zone’ where the temperature permits liquid water. There are likely billions of earth-like worlds in our galaxy alone. And with instruments now or soon available, we have a chance of finding out if any of these planets are true Pale Blue Dots – home to water, life, even minds.
There has never been a better moment for a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe. As a civilization, we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.
But as well as a call to action, this is a call to thought. When we find the nearest exo-Earth, should we send a probe? Do we try to make contact with advanced civilizations? Who decides? Individuals, institutions, corporations, or states? Or can we as species - as a planet - think together?
Three years ago, Voyager 1 broke the sun’s embrace and entered interstellar space. The 20th century will be remembered for our travels within the solar system. With cooperation and commitment, the present century will be the time when we graduate to the galactic scale, seek other forms of life, and so know more deeply who we are.
This open letter was signed by:
Yuri Milner Founder Breakthrough Prize, Founder DST Global
  • Cori Bargmann Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute; Torsten N. Wiesel Professor, The Rockefeller University
  • Sarah Brightman Soprano
  • Magnus Carlsen World Chess Champion
  • Ding Chen Professor and Principal Investigator of the Search for Terrestrial Exo-Planets Mission, Chinese Academy of Sciences
  • Frank Drake Chairman Emeritus, SETI Institute; Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Astrophysics, University of California, Santa Cruz; Founding Director, National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center; Former Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University
  • Ann Druyan Creative Director of the Interstellar Message, NASA Voyager; Co-Founder and CEO, Cosmos Studios; Emmy and Peabody award winning Writer and Producer
  • Stephen Hawking Professor, Dennis Stanton Avery and Sally Tsui Wong-Avery Director of Research, University of Cambridge
  • Paul Horowitz Professor of Physics and of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, Harvard University
  • Garik Israelian Professor and Staff Astrophysicist, Institute of Astrophysics of Canary Islands
  • Lisa Kaltenegger Director, Carl Sagan Institute; Associate Professor of Astronomy, Cornell University
  • Nikolay Kardashev Director, Astro Space Center of PN Lebedev Physics Institute
  • Mark Kelly Astronaut
  • Eric Lander President and Founding Director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard; Professor of Biology, MIT; Professor of Systems Biology, Harvard Medical School
  • Alexey Leonov Cosmonaut
  • Avi Loeb Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, Chair of the Astronomy Department and Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation, Harvard University
  • Seth MacFarlane Writer, Director and Actor
  • Geoff Marcy Professor of Astronomy, University of California, Berkeley
  • Lord Martin Rees Astronomer Royal, Fellow of Trinity College; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, University of Cambridge
  • Kenneth Rogof Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and Professor of Economics, Harvard University; International Grandmaster of Chess
  • Dimitar Sasselov Phillips Professor of Astronomy, Harvard University; Founding Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative
  • Sara Seager Professor of Planetary Sciences and Professor of Physics, MIT
  • Sujan Sengupta Associate Professor, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Ministry of Science and Technology
  • Seth Shostak Professor, Senior Astronomer and Director, Center for SETI research
  • Thomas Stafford Astronaut
  • Jill Tarter Astronomer; Bernard M. Oliver Chair for SETI Research, SETI Institute
  • Kip Thorne Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus, California Institute of Technology; Scientific consultant and an executive producer, Interstellar
  • James Watson Chancellor Emeritus, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory; Nobel Prize Laureate
  • Steven Weinberg Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Texas at Austin; Nobel Prize Laureate
  • Edward Witten Professor, School of Natural Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study
  • Pete Worden Chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation
  • Shinya Yamanaka Professor and Director of the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University; Nobel Prize Laureate
news update

VLT to Search for Planets in Alpha Centauri System

ESO has signed an agreement with the Breakthrough Initiatives to adapt the Very Large Telescope instrumentation in Chile to conduct a search for planets in the nearby star system Alpha Centauri. Such planets could be the targets for an eventual launch of miniature space probes by the Breakthrough Starshot initiative.
ESO, represented by the Director General, Tim de Zeeuw, has signed an agreement with the Breakthrough Initiatives, represented by Pete Worden, Chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation and Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives. The agreement provides funds for the VISIR (VLT Imager and Spectrometer for mid-Infrared) instrument, mounted at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to be modified in order to greatly enhance its ability to search for potentially habitable planets around Alpha Centauri, the closest stellar system to the Earth. The agreement also provides for telescope time to allow a careful search programme to be conducted in 2019.
The discovery in 2016 of a planet, Proxima b, around Proxima Centauri, the third and faintest star of the Alpha Centauri system, adds even further impetus to this search.
Knowing where the nearest exoplanets are is of paramount interest for Breakthrough Starshot, the research and engineering programme launched in April 2016, which aims to demonstrate proof of concept for ultra-fast light-driven “nanocraft”, laying the foundation for the first launch to Alpha Centauri within a generation.
Detecting a habitable planet is an enormous challenge due to the brightness of the planetary system’s host star, which tends to overwhelm the relatively dim planets. One way to make this easier is to observe in the mid-infrared wavelength range, where the thermal glow from an orbiting planet greatly reduces the brightness gap between it and its host star. But even in the mid-infrared, the star remains millions of times brighter than the planets to be detected, which calls for a dedicated technique to reduce the blinding stellar light.
The existing mid-infrared instrument VISIR on the VLT will provide such performance if it were enhanced to greatly improve the image quality using adaptive optics, and adapted to employ a technique called coronagraphy to reduce the stellar light and thereby reveal the possible signal of potential terrestrial planets. Breakthrough Initiatives will pay for a large fraction of the necessary technologies and development costs for such an experiment, and ESO will provide the required observing capabilities and time.
The new hardware includes an instrument module contracted to Kampf Telescope Optics (KTO), Munich, which will host the wavefront sensor, and a novel detector calibration device. In addition, there are plans for a new coronagraph to be developed jointly by University of Liège (Belgium) and Uppsala University (Sweden).
Detecting and studying potentially habitable planets orbiting other stars will be one of the main scientific goals of the upcoming European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Although the increased size of the E-ELT will be essential to obtaining an image of a planet at larger distances in the Milky Way, the light collecting power of the VLT is just sufficient to image a planet around the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.
The developments for VISIR will also be beneficial for the future METIS instrument, to be mounted on the E-ELT, as the knowledge gained and proof of concept will be directly transferable. The huge size of the E-ELT should allow METIS to detect and study exoplanets the size of Mars orbiting Alpha Centauri, if they exist, as well as other potentially habitable planets around other nearby stars.

More Information

The Breakthrough Initiatives are a program of scientific and technological exploration founded in 2015 by Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner to explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective.
Breakthrough Starshot is a $100 million research and engineering program aiming to demonstrate proof of concept for a new technology, enabling ultra-light unmanned space flight at 20% of the speed of light, and to lay the foundations for a flyby mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.



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