Improved Telescope to Directly Image Alpha Centauri Exoplanets and Other Exoplanet Updates

1. Newly-built planet-finding instrument installed on Very Large Telescope aims to be first to directly image a habitable exoplanet. The instrument, called NEAR (Near Earths in the AlphaCen Region), is designed to hunt for exoplanets in our neighbouring star system, Alpha Centauri, within the “habitable zones” of its two Sun-like stars, where water could potentially exist in liquid form. It has been developed over the last three years and was built in collaboration with the University of Uppsala in Sweden, the University of Liège in Belgium, the California Institute of Technology in the US, and Kampf Telescope Optics in Munich, Germany.

Since 23 May ESO’s astronomers at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have been conducting a ten-day observing run to establish the presence or absence of one or more planets in the star system. Observations will conclude tomorrow, 11 June. Planets in the system (twice the size of Earth or bigger), would be detectable with the upgraded instrumentation. The near- to thermal-infrared range is significant as it corresponds to the heat emitted by a candidate planet, and so enables astronomers to determine whether the planet’s temperature allows liquid water.

2. On June 13, 2019 NASA’s planet counter ticked up to 4,000, then passed it by three, with 31 new discoveries.

NASA’s Exoplanet Archive announces 31 newly confirmed exoplanets – planets beyond our solar system – discovered by ground and space-based telescopes. Five were detected by the recently launched TESS space telescope.

3. While we now know of thousands of exoplanets — planets around other stars — the vast majority of our knowledge is indirect. We can only see these worlds as points of light or see the effect of gravity on stars. However, the number of exoplanets that have been directly imaged is growing over time. When NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches in 2021, it will open a new window on these exoplanets, observing them in wavelengths at which they have never been seen before and gaining new insights about their nature.

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