Vector vortex coronagraphs (VVC) are among the most promising solutions to directly image faint extrasolar planets by dimming the glare of their nearby host star. Manufacturing and efficiently operating such devices is however a challenging enterprise, especially in the thermal infrared regime where warm planets radiate most of their energy. For several years, we have been developing a new class of VVC, called the Annular Groove Phase Mask (AGPM) coronagraph. Etched on a diamond substrate, this coronagraph can be operated at any wavelength, including the thermal infrared, thanks to the excellent transparency properties of diamond. We are now at a stage where the first components have been manufactured and tested. The proposed research program has three main goals. First, we will install and exploit the first generation of AGPM coronagraphs on large telescopes in world-leading observatories. By providing a means to efficiently cancel the starlight in the thermal infrared regime for the first time, our AGPMs will significantly contribute to the discoveries and characterisation of exoplanets beyond a few astronomical units. Second, we aim at developing new AGPM coronagraphs for the next generation of imaging instruments. We will particularly focus our developments on the instruments planned for the future extremely large telescopes, which will bring the direct imaging of exoplanets to a new level. Finally, we will study, develop and test a ground-breaking concept that could improve very significantly the on-sky performance of VVCs in general. This concept is based on the quantum properties of light and in particular on the fact that an optical vortex induces an orbital angular momentum on the input starlight. We propose to use an interferometric device to sort photons based on their orbital angular momentum, so as to separate the planetary light from the residual starlight (including the speckles created by atmospheric turbulence) at the output of the coronagraph.
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