This is a Photo of Neptune, From the Ground! ESO’s New Adaptive Optics Makes Ground Telescopes Ignore the Earth’s Atmosphere

In 2007, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) completed work on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. This ground-based telescope is the world’s most advanced optical instrument, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors (measuring 8.2 meters in diameter) and four movable 1.8-meter diameter Auxiliary Telescopes.

Recently, the VLT was upgraded with a new instrument known as the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), a panoramic integral-field spectrograph that works at visible wavelengths. Thanks to the new adaptive optics mode that this allows for (known as laser tomography) the VLT was able to recently acquire some images of Neptune, star clusters and other astronomical objects with impeccable clarity.

In astronomy, adaptive optics refers to a technique where instruments are able to compensate for the blurring effect caused by Earth’s atmosphere, which is a serious issue when it comes to ground-based telescopes. Basically, as light passes through our atmosphere, it becomes distorted and causes distant objects to become blurred (which is why stars appear to twinkle when seen with the naked eye).

Images of the planet Neptune obtained during the testing of the Narrow-Field adaptive optics mode of the MUSE/GALACSI instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO/P. Weilbacher (AIP

One solution to this problem is to deploy telescopes into space, where atmospheric disturbance is not an issue. Another is to rely on advanced technology that can artificially correct for the distortions, thus resulting in much clearer images. One such technology is the MUSE instrument, which works with an adaptive optics unit called a GALACSI – a subsystem of the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF).

The instrument allows for two adaptive optics modes – the Wide Field Mode and the Narrow Field Mode. Whereas the former corrects for the effects of atmospheric turbulence up to one km above the telescope over a comparatively wide field of view, the Narrow Field mode uses laser tomography to correct for almost all of the atmospheric turbulence above the telescope to create much sharper images, but over a smaller region of the sky.

This consists of four lasers that are fixed to the fourth Unit Telescope (UT4) beaming intense orange light into the sky, simulating sodium atoms high in the atmosphere and creating artificial “Laser Guide Stars”. Light from these artificial stars is then used to determine the turbulence in the atmosphere and calculate corrections, which are then sent to the deformable secondary mirror of the UT4 to correct for the distorted light.

Using this Narrow Field Mode, the VLT was able to capture remarkably sharp test images of the planet Neptune, distant star clusters (such as the globular star cluster NGC 6388), and other objects. In so doing, the VLT demonstrated that its UT4 mirror is able to reach the theoretical limit of image sharpness and is no longer limited by the effects of atmospheric distortion.

The most powerful laser guide star system in the world sees first light at the Paranal Observatory. Credit: ESO

This essentially means that it is now possible for the VLT to capture images from the ground that are sharper than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The results from UT4 will also help engineers to make similar adaptations to the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which will also rely on laser tomography to conduct its surveys and accomplish its scientific goals.

These goals include the study of supermassive black holes (SMBHs) at the centers of distant galaxies, jets from young stars, globular clusters, supernovae, the planets and moons of the Solar System, and extra-solar planets. In short, the use of adaptive optics – as tested and confirmed by the VLT’s MUSE – will allow astronomers to use ground-based telescopes to study the properties of astronomical objects in much greater detail than ever before.

In addition, other adaptive optics systems will benefit from work with the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF) in the coming years. These include the ESO’s GRAAL, a ground layer adaptive optics module that is already being used by  the Hawk-I infrared wide-field imager. In a few years, the powerful Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph (ERIS) instrument will also be added to the VLT.

Between these upgrades and the deployment of next-generation space telescopes in the coming years (like the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be deploying in 2021), astronomers expect to bringing a great deal more of the Universe “into focus”. And what they see is sure to help resolve some long-standing mysteries, and will probably create a whole lot more!

And be sure to enjoy these videos of the images obtained by the VLT of Neptune and NGC 6388, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO

Witness The Power Of A Fully Operational ESPRESSO Instrument. Four Telescopes Acting As One

It’s been 20 years since the first of the four Unit Telescopes that comprise the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) saw first light. Since the year 2000 all four of them have been in operation. One of the original goals of the VLT was to have all four of the ‘scopes work in combination, and that has now been achieved.

The instrument that combines the light from all four of the VLT ‘scopes is called ESPRESSO, which stands for Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations. ESPRESSO captures the light from each of the 8.2 meter mirrors in the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT. That combination makes ESPRESSO, in effect, the largest optical telescope in the world.

The huge diffraction grating is at the heart of the ultra-precise ESPRESSO spectrograph. In this image, the diffraction grating is undergoing testing in the cleanroom at ESO Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany. Image: ESO/M. Zamani

Combining the power of the four Unit Telescopes of the VLT is a huge milestone for the ESO. As ESPRESSO instrument scientist at ESO, Gaspare Lo Curto, says, “ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s: bringing the light from all four Unit Telescopes on Cerro Paranal together at an incoherent focus to feed a single instrument!” The excitement is real, because along with its other science goals, ESPRESSO will be an extremely powerful planet-hunting telescope.

“ESO has realised a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s.” – Gaspare Lo Curto, ESPRESSO instrument scientist.

ESPRESSO uses a system of mirrors, lenses, and prisms to transmit the light from each of the four VLT ‘scopes to the spectrograph. This is accomplished with a network of tunnels that was incorporated into the VLT when it was built. ESPRESSO has the flexibility to combine the light from all four, or from any one of the telescopes. This observational flexibility was also an original design goal for ESPRESSO.

The four Unit Telescopes often operate together as the VLT Interferometer, but that’s much different than ESPRESSO. The VLT Interferometer allows astronomers to study extreme detail in bright objects, but it doesn’t combine the light from the four Unit Telescopes into one instrument. ESPRESSO collects the light from all four ‘scopes and splits it into its component colors. This allows detailed analysis of the composition of distant objects.

ESPRESSO team members gather in the control room during ESPRESSO’s first light. Image: ESO/D. Megevand

ESPRESSO is a very complex instrument, which explains why it’s taken until now to be implemented. It works with a principle called “incoherent focus.” In this sense, “incoherent” means that the light from all four telescopes is added together, but the phase information isn’t included as it is with the VLT Interferometer. What this boils down to is that while both the VLT Interferometer and ESPRESSO both use the light of all four VLT telescopes, ESPRESSO only has the spatial resolution of a single 8.2 mirror. ESPRESSO, as its name implies, is all about detailed spectrographic analysis. And in that, it will excel.

“ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes gives us an enticing foretaste of what the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, will offer in a few years.” – ESO’s Director General, Xavier Barcons

ESPRESSO is the successor to HARPS, the High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher, which up until now has been our best exoplanet hunter. HARPS is a 3.6 meter telescope operated by the ESO, and also based on an echelle spectrograph. But the power of ESPRESSO will dwarf that of HARPS.

There are three main science goals for ESPRESSO:

  • Planet Hunting
  • Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants
  • Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies

Planet Hunting

ESPRESSO will take highly precise measurements of the radial velocities of solar type stars in other solar systems. As an exoplanet orbits its star, it takes part in a dance or tug-of-war with the star, the same way planets in our Solar System do with our Sun. ESPRESSO will be able to measure very small “dances”, which means it will be able to detect very small planets. Right now, our planet-hunting instruments aren’t as sensitive as ESPRESSO, which means our exoplanet search results are biased to larger planets. ESPRESSO should detect more smaller, Earth-size planets.

The four Unit Telescopes that make up the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, at the Paranal Observatory> Image: By ESO/H.H.Heyer [CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants

This is where the light-combining power of ESPRESSO will be most useful. ESPRESSO will be used to observe extremely distant and faint quasars, to try and measure the variation of the fundamental physical constants in our Universe. (If there are any variations, that is.) It’s not only the instrument’s light-combining capability that allows this, but also the instrument’s extreme stability.

Specifically, the ESPRESSO will try to take our most accurate measurements yet of the fine structure constant, and the proton to electron mass ratio. Astronomers want to know if these have changed over time. They will use ESPRESSO to examine the ancient light from these distant quasars to measure any change.

Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies

ESPRESSO will open up new possibilities in the measurement of stars in nearby galaxies. It’s high efficiency and high resolution will allow astronomers to study stars outside of the Milky Way in unprecedented detail. A better understanding of stars in other galaxies is always a priority item in astronomy.

We’ll let Project Scientist Paolo Molaro have the last word, for now. “This impressive milestone is the culmination of work by a large team of scientists and engineers over many years. It is wonderful to see ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes and I look forward to the exciting science results to come.”

Astronomers Identify the Largest Yellow “Hypergiant” Star Known

A stellar monster lurks in heart of the Centaur.

A recent analysis of a star in the south hemisphere constellation of Centaurus has highlighted the role that amateurs play in assisting with professional discoveries in astronomy.

The find used of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope based in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile — as well as data from observatories around the world — to reveal the nature of a massive yellow “hypergiant” star as one of the largest stars known.

The stats for the star are impressive indeed: dubbed HR 5171 A, the binary system weighs in at a combined 39 solar masses, has a radius of over 1,300 times that of our Sun, and is a million times as luminous. Located 3,600 parsecs or over 11,700 light years distant, the star is 50% larger than the famous red giant Betelgeuse. Plop HR 5171 A down into the center of our own solar system, and it would extend out over 6 astronomical units (A.U.s) past the orbit of Jupiter.

The field around HR 5171 A (the brightest star just below center). Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2.
The field around HR 5171 A (the brightest star just below center). Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Researchers used observations going back over 60 years – some of which were collected by dedicated amateur astronomers – to pin down the nature of this curious star. A variable star just below naked eye visibility spanning a magnitude range from +6.1 to +7.3, HR 5171 A also has a relatively small companion star orbiting across our line of sight once every 1300 days. Such a system is known as an eclipsing binary. Famous examples of similar systems are the star Algol (Alpha Persei), Epsilon Aurigae and Beta Lyrae. The companion star for HR 5171 is also a large star in its own right at around six solar masses and 400 solar radii in size. The distance from center-to-center for the system is about 10 A.U.s – the distance from Sol to Saturn – and the surface-to-surface distance for the A and B components of the system are “only” about 2.8 A.U.s apart. This all means that these two massive stars are in physical contact, with the expanded outer atmosphere of the bloated primary contacting the secondary, giving the pair a distorted peanut shape.

“The companion we have found is very significant as it can have an influence on the fate of HR 5171 A, for example stripping off its outer layers and modifying its evolution,” said astronomer Olivier Chesneau of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in Nice France in the recent press release.

Knowing the orbital period of a secondary star offers a method to measure the mass of the primary using good old Newtonian mechanics. Coupled with astrometry used to measure its tiny parallax, this allows astronomers to pin down HR 5171 A’s stupendous size and distance.

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Along with luminous blue variables, yellow hypergiants are some of the brightest stars known, with an absolute magnitude of around -9. That’s just 16x times fainter than the apparent visual magnitude of a Full Moon but over 100 times brighter than Venus – if you placed a star like HR 5171 A 32 light years from the Earth, it would easily cast a shadow.

Astronomers used a technique known as interferormetry to study HR 5171 A, which involves linking up several telescopes to create the resolving power of one huge telescope. Researchers also culled through over a decade’s worth data to analyze the star. Though much of what had been collected by the American Association of Variable Star Observers (the AAVSO) had been considered to be too noisy for the purposes of this study, a dataset built from 2000 to 2013 by amateur astronomer Sebastian Otero was of excellent quality and provided a good verification for the VLT data.

The discovery is also crucial as researchers have come to realize that we’re catching HR 5171 A at an exceptional phase in its life. The star has been getting larger and cooling as it grows, and this change can be seen just over the past 40 year span of observations, a rarity in stellar astronomy.

“It’s not a surprise that yellow hypergiants are very instable and lose a lot of mass,” Chesneau told Universe Today. “But the discovery of a companion around such a bright star was a big surprise since any ‘normal’ star should at least be 10,000 times fainter than the hypergiant. Moreover, the hypergiant was much bigger than expected. What we see is not the companion itself, but the regions gravitationally controlled and filled by the wind from the hypergiant. This is a perfect example of the so-called Roche model. This is the first time that such a useful and important model has really been imaged. This hypergiant exemplifies a famous concept!”

Indeed, you can see just such photometric variations as the secondary orbits its host in the VLTI data collected by the AMBER interferometer, backed up by observations from GEMINI’s NICI chronograph:

Credit: ESO/VLT/GEMINI/NICI
Looking at the bizarre system of HR 5171. Credit: Olivier Chesneau/ESO/VLT/GEMINI/NICI

The NIGHTFALL program was also used for modeling the eclipsing binary components.

These latest measurements place HR 5171 A firmly in the “Top 10” for largest stars in terms of size known, as well as the largest yellow hypergiant star known This is due mainly to tidal interactions with its companion. Only eight yellow hypergiants have been identified in our Milky Way galaxy.  HR 5171 A is also in a crucial transition phase from a red hypergiant to becoming a luminous blue variable or perhaps even a Wolf-Rayet type star, and will eventually end its life as a supernova.

Enormous stars:
Enormous stars: From left to right, The Pistol Star, Rho Cassiopeiae, Betelgeuse and VY Canis Majoris compared with the orbits of Jupiter (in red) and Neptune (in blue). Remember, HR 5171 A is 50% larger than Betelgeuse! Credit: Anynobody under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.

HR 5171 A is also known as HD 119796, HIP 67261, and V766 Centauri. Located at Right Ascension 13 Hours 47’ 11” and declination -62 degrees 35’ 23,” HR 5171 culminates just two degrees above the southern horizon at local midnight as seen from Miami in late March.

Credit: Stellarium
HR 5171 A: a finder chart. Click to enlarge. Credit: Stellarium

HR 5171 A is a fine binocular object for southern hemisphere observers.

But the good news is, there’s another yellow hypergiant visible for northern hemisphere observers named Rho Cassiopeiae:

Credit: Stellarium
The location of Rho Cassiopeiae in the night sky. Credit: Stellarium

Rho Cass is one of the few naked eye examples of a yellow hypergiant star, and varies from magnitude +4.1 to +6.2 over an irregular period.

It’s amusing read the Burnham’s Celestial Handbook entry on Rho Cass. He notes the lack of parallax and the spectral measurements of the day — the early 1960s — as eluding to a massive star with a “true distance… close to 3,000 light years!” Today we know that Rho Cassiopeiae actually lies farther still, at over 8,000 light years distant. Robert Burnham would’ve been impressed even more by the amazing nature of HR 5171 as revealed today by ESO astronomers!

–      The AAVSO is always seeking observations from amateur astronomers of variable stars.