The Planet Formation Imager (PFI) is a near- and mid-infrared interferometer project with the driving science goal of imaging directly the key stages of planet formation, including the young proto-planets themselves. Here, we will present an update on the work of the Science Working Group (SWG), including new simulations of dust structures during the assembly phase of planet formation and quantitative detection efficiencies for accreting and non-accreting young exoplanets as a function of mass and age. We use these results to motivate two reference PFI designs consisting of a) twelve 3m telescopes with a maximum baseline of 1.2km focused on young exoplanet imaging and b) twelve 8m telescopes optimized for a wider range of young exoplanets and protoplanetary disk imaging out to the 150K H2O ice line. Armed with 4 x 8m telescopes, the ESO/VLTI can already detect young exoplanets in principle and projects such as MATISSE, Hi-5 and Heimdallr are important PFI pathfinders to make this possible. We also discuss the state of technology development needed to make PFI more affordable, including progress towards new designs for inexpensive, small field-of-view, large aperture telescopes and prospects for Cubesat-based space interferometry.
In the era of high-angular resolution astronomical instrumentation, where long and very long baseline interferometers (constituted by many, ∼20 or more, telescopes) are expected to work not only in the millimeter and submillimeter domain, but also at near and mid infrared wavelengths (experiments such as the Planet Formation Imager, PFI, see Monnier et al. 2018 for an update on its design); any promising strategy to alleviate the costs of the individual telescopes involved needs to be explored. In a recent collaboration between engineers, experimental physicists and astronomers in Valparaiso, Chile, we are gaining expertise in the production of light carbon fiber polymer reinforced mirrors. The working principle consists in replicating a glass, or other substrate, mandrel surface with the mirrored adequate curvature, surface characteristics and general shape. Once the carbon fiber base has hardened, previous studies have shown that it can be coated (aluminum) using standard coating processes/techniques designed for glass-based mirrors. The resulting surface quality is highly dependent on the temperature and humidity control among other variables. Current efforts are focused on improving the smoothness of the resulting surfaces to meet near/mid infrared specifications, overcoming, among others, possible deteriorations derived from the replication process. In a second step, at the validation and quality control stage, the mirrors are characterized using simple/traditional tools like spherometers (down to micron precision), but also an optical bench with a Shack-Hartman wavefront sensor. This research line is developed in parallel with a more classical glass-based approach, and in both cases we are prototyping at the small scale of few tens of cms. We here present our progress on these two approaches.