Olivier Absil gets an ERC Consolidator Grant for his EPIC project


Olivier Absil, astronomer and frs-FNRS Research Associate with the STAR Institute, has been awarded a second research grant - an ERC Consolidator Grant - by the European Research Council, for his EPIC (Earth-like Planet Imaging with Cognitive computing) project. This grant (€2.2 million) will enable the researcher to continue developing optical imaging tools based on machine learning techniques, aiming at the detection of Earth-like exoplanets.

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ne of the most ambitious goals of modern astrophysics is to characterize the physical and chemical properties of rocky planets orbiting in the habitable zone of nearby stars. Although the observation of planetary transits can, in some cases, be used to achieve such a goal, only direct imaging techniques will give access to a statistically significant sample of planetary systems. Direct imaging of Earth-like exoplanets remains however a formidable challenge due to the huge contrast and minute angular separation between these planets and their host star. It is therefore necessary to develop optical imaging tools capable of dimming the brightness of these stars, in order to better discern the planets that orbit them.

Olivier Absil, researcher at PSILab (STAR Institute), has been working for many years on the development of coronagraphs – optical instruments placed on terrestrial telescopes to reduce the blinding glare of stars, like in a solar eclipse, in order to study more precisely their environment. Already an ERC grantee in 2013 for his VORTEX project, he will now be supported in his research by an ERC Consolidator Grant of €2.2 million. "With the EPIC project," explains Olivier Absil, "we will investigate in detail a path that has emerged during the VORTEX project: the use of artificial intelligence, and machine learning techniques in particular, for the direct detection of extrasolar planets." This technique is bound to provide real pictures of planetary systems similar to our solar system - we are talking here about nearby systems around 50 to 100 light years away - where we will clearly separate the star and their surrounding planets. "In this way we will be able to collect and analyze the photons emitted by the planets in order to determine their composition."

Coronagraphy, applied to stars for about twenty years, is now beginning to prove its worth. In collaboration with his colleagues from the ULiège Montefiore Institute, and more specifically Profs. Marc van Droogenbroeck and Gilles Louppe, Olivier Absil now hopes to make the most of the experience acquired over the past 5 years. He has indeed been able to develop, install, and operate his VORTEX coronagraphs on various telescopes such as the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile and the Keck in Hawaii. The research to be carried out under this new grant will directly benefit the Mid-infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS), to be installed on the future ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), a European project led by ESO and expected to have first light in 2025. "With the ELT, we will be able to do for instance an in-depth study of Alpha Centauri, the closest star to our solar system. If an Earth-like planet is found around Alpha Centauri, METIS will have the capability to image and study it, and possibly even detect signatures of biological activity."

Olivier ABSIL

Graduated in 2001 in Civil Engineering at the University of Liège, Olivier Absil slowly drifted into astronomy during his Master’s thesis, when he became the first ULiège scientist to work on the Darwin space project. After a short stint at the Observatoire de Paris as part of his PhD program, Olivier Absil returned to Liège where he defended his PhD thesis in 2006. After two years of post-doctoral work at the Grenoble Observatory thanks to a Marie Curie fellowship, he obtained an frs-FNRS postdoctoral grant in 2008, which enabled him to develop the VORTEX project that led him to obtain his first ERC Grant. Since 2013, Olivier Absil is an frs-FNRS Research Associate, head of the PSILab group (STAR Institute).

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Olivier ABSIL

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