The Russian billionaire-funded, Stephen Hawking-backed Breakthrough Initiatives project, whose goal is to find extraterrestrial life, has been pretty rapidly enlisting the world’s most powerful telescopes to listen to the sky for signs of intelligent aliens. But the project just managed to finalize something a bit more exciting an agreement with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile to use its optical instruments to look for signs of aliens in Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to Earth.

Breakthrough, and its benefactor Yuri Milner, are obsessed with Alpha Centauri. The Starshot project is already looking to develop low-cost, ultra-fast spacecraft that could make it to the star system in about 20 years and look for potentially habitable worlds and extraterrestrials. There are strong reasons to believe life could survive and make a home for itself in Alpha Centauri — just 4.37 light-years away.

But it’s going to be a very long time before Starshot finally launches its nanocraft off into space (if ever. Instead, we ought to use some of the tools we have here on Earth to see if we might be able to spot something in Alpha Centauri earlier. Though we have reason to believe it’s habitable zone could support life, we actually have no idea whether any planets actually exist in Alpha Centauri’s neighborhood.

That’s what Breakthrough wants to use the VLT for — pinpointing potential objects that deserve increased, detailed study. In this way, not only can use better technology to get a better view of these planets and determine whether they possess any signs of life, but we’ll have actual targets to shoot the Starshot nanocraft towards when the time comes.

Because Alpha Centauri is so close to us, the brightness obscures our view and keeps us unable to really study whether there are any planets in its orbit. The VLT, however, has some instruments that can employ different techniques to reduce stellar light — if they can be upgraded. Breakthrough’s new agreement means it will pay a large portion for those necessary upgrades.

Furthermore, the new agreement lays a precursor framework for a future collaboration with ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope — which Breakthrough may be interested in using for studying exoplanets are greater distances.

The new partnership means those upgrades should be completed within the next few years, and the telescope will allocate search time to the Alpha Centauri region in 2019. In two years’ time, we may have some answers about whether there are potentially habitable worlds we’ll be traveling to one day.

Photos via ESO/L. Calçada/N. Risinger