Three of the world’s most powerful men are ramping up efforts to find alien life by upgrading an advanced telescope in Chile.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner and physicist Stephen Hawking are hoping to find Earth-like planets in our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri.
Together they will upgrade the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to look for potentially habitable worlds as part of the ‘Breakthrough’ initiatives.
These planets could be the targets for a launch of tiny space probes to track down aliens within our lifetimes, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) said.
The move follows the discovery last year of a planet, Proxima b, around Proxima Centauri, the third and faintest star of the Alpha Centauri system.
The rocky planet is believed to have the right conditions to harbour life and is just four light years from Earth.
‘It came only a few months after Stephen Hawking and I, with Mark Zuckerberg’s support, launched our Breakthrough Starshot project, which aims to launch a tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri within a generation,’ Milner told MailOnline last year.
‘At the time, we hoped there was a planet in the Centauri system, but we didn’t know.
‘Now we have a definite target. That makes the mission feel more tangible.’
The Breakthrough Starshot project is already looking to develop low-cost spacecraft that could reach the star system in about 20 years.
As part of the new agreement, the Breakthrough Initiatives will fund work on the VLT to improve its ability to see planets in Alpha Centauri.
This is important because no one has seen Proxima b yet – they only know it is there because of the light changes in its star.
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 on the VLT will provide such performance if it were upgraded, the researchers said.
Breakthrough Initiatives will largely pay for this upgrade, while the ESO will provide the required time and observational capabilities.
It is currently unknown how much funding has been allocated to the VLT.
They expect a ‘careful search programme’ to be carried out in 2019.
The move comes as one of the backers of the project, Professor Hawking, says we should be wary of contacting aliens if we find them.
‘Gazing at the stars I always imagined there was someone up there looking back’, Hawking says during a film, titled ‘Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places’.
‘As I grow older I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone.’
However, if we were to meet an advanced civilisation, Hawking says it could be similar to when the Native Americans first encountered Christopher Columbus – and ‘that didn’t turn out so well’.
He says it’s better for us to find them before they find us.
Milner says this shouldn’t stop us from looking.
‘I’ve always been fascinated by the existential questions of life and the universe,’ he said.
‘It is fundamental to understanding our place in the big scheme of things. You can’t know who you are without having others to compare yourself to.’
‘They could well be right. But they could also be wrong.
‘Either way the answer would be incredible. We humans are curious beings who like to know the truth. So, why not look?’
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