Searching for Life in the Solar System ... And Beyond

A Research Discussion Meeting
London, UK - 31 October 1996


Francesco Paresce, European Southern Observatory, Karl Schwarzschild Str.2, 85748 Garching b. Munchen, Germany

ESO is currently in an advanced phase of construction of four 8.2m diameter telescopes to be placed on top of Cerro Paranal in northern Chile at an altitude of 2500m. The first telescope is expected to become operational by mid 1998 with the rest coming on line in yearly intervals. This means that, already by the beginning of the next century, Europe will have available an array of astronomical instruments of unprecedented power and versatility. Among the most important scientific objectives of the VLT observatory will be an in-depth study of extrasolar planets and their environments. In this presentation, I will describe the planned efforts in this exciting new field with special emphasis on high precision narrow-angle astrometry that can be exploited with an interferometric array of small telescopes clustered around the large ones, high spectral resolution in the optical and IR to probe a very large number of stars for tell-tale velocity variations and precision photometry to catch planetary microlensing events. The exciting possibility to directly image the brightest planets is also being actively pursued at ESO. The aim of the talk is to show what pivotal roles the VLT and VLTI should be able to play in this important area of research.