First light for the NEAR experiment at the Very Large Telescope


Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has just obtained the "first light" on NEAR (Near Earths in the AlphaCen Region), an upgraded version of the VISIR instrument installed at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and designed to search for exoplanets in the habitable zones of our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri, where water could potentially exist in liquid form. A project in which the University of Liège is involved.


n 2017, the University of Liège signed an agreement with the Breakthrough Foundation to provide "vortex" coronagraphs, essential to the implementation of the "Breakthrough Watch" project. This project aims to obtain for the first time the image of a planetary system with the sensitivity required to detect a potentially habitable planet, focusing on the Alpha Centauri system, the star closest to our Sun. This project was made possible thanks to a strong collaboration between the University of Uppsala (Sweden), the University of Liège, the California Institute of Technology (United States), and ESO.

On May 23rd, the first of these coronagraphs obtained its first light as part of the NEAR (New Earths in the Alpha Centauri Region) experiment, conducted by ESO in collaboration with the Breakthrough Foundation. This experiment consists of improving VISIR, an existing infrared camera, and installing it on the Yepun telescope at the Very Large Telescope. Yepun is the only one of the four VLTs to be equipped with a deformable secondary mirror, which corrects atmospheric turbulence and thus provides exceptional image quality for the instruments installed at its focus.

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The observing campaign for the NEAR project just ended on June 11th, with nearly 100 hours of observations collected over twenty nights. These observations were carried out under the direction of ESO astronomers, with the participation of two scientists from Liège, Olivier Absil and Anne-Lise Maire (STAR Institute, ULiège), for the qualification and operation of the coronagraph. The data, made directly available to the entire scientific community, will now be analyzed to possibly reveal the presence of a large habitable planet.  This research was partially funded by the ERC starting grant "VORTEX" awarded to Olivier Absil in 2013.

"This project represents an important first step in imaging potentially habitable planets," explains Olivier Absil. "Even if the probability of detecting such a planet in the Alpha Centauri system is only about 10%, NEAR allows us to test a number of crucial concepts and technologies for the future METIS instrument which, once installed on the ESO Extremely Large telescope (ETL) currently under construction, will allow us to repeat this type of observation for a larger number of stars. »

This research was partially funded by the ERC "VORTEX" (grant agreement 337569).

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