Astronomers Get as Close as They Can to Seeing the Black Hole at the Heart of the Milky Way

Since the 1970s, astronomers have theorized that at the center of our galaxy,  about 26,000 light-years from Earth, there exists a supermassive black hole (SMBH) known as Sagittarius A*. Measuring an estimated 44 million km (27.3 million mi) in diameter and weighing in at roughly 4 million Solar masses, this black hole is believed to have had a profound influence on the formation and evolution of our galaxy.

And yet, scientists have never been able to see it directly and its existence has only been inferred from the effect it has on the stars and material surrounding it. However, new observations conducted by the GRAVITY collaboration** has managed to yield the most detailed observations to date of the matter surrounding Sagittarius A*, which is the strongest evidence yet that a black hole exists at the center of the Milky Way. Continue reading “Astronomers Get as Close as They Can to Seeing the Black Hole at the Heart of the Milky Way”

An Extremely Large Hole has Been Dug for the Extremely Large Telescope

All over the world, some truly groundbreaking telescopes are being built that will usher in a new age of astronomy. Sites include the mountain of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, Australia, South Africa, southwestern China, and the Atacama Desert – a remote plateau in the Chilean Andes. In this extremely dry environment, multiple arrays are being built that will allow astronomers to see farther into the cosmos and with greater resolution.

One of these is the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), a next-generation array that will feature a complex primary mirror measuring 39 meters (128 feet) in diameter. At this very moment, construction is underway atop the Andean mountain of Cerro Armazones, where construction teams are busy pouring the foundations for the largest telescope every built.

Continue reading “An Extremely Large Hole has Been Dug for the Extremely Large Telescope”

New Video Shows Construction Beginning on the World’s Largest Telescope

In the coming years, many ground-based and space-based telescopes will commence operations and collect their first light from cosmic sources. This next-generation of telescopes is not only expected to see farther into the cosmos (and hence, farther back in time), they are also expected to reveal new things about the nature of our Universe, its creation and its evolution.

One of these instruments is the Extremely Large Telescope, an optical telescope that is overseen by the European Southern Observatory. Once it is built, the ELT will be the largest ground-based telescope in the world. Construction began in May of 2017, and the ESO recently released a video that illustrates what it will look like when it is complete.

Continue reading “New Video Shows Construction Beginning on the World’s Largest Telescope”

This Beautiful Photo of Galaxy NGC 3981 was Taken by the Most Powerful Telescope in the World for no Scientific Reason at all. Just Because it’s Pretty

The world’s most powerful telescopes have a lot of work to do. They’re tasked with helping us unravel the mysteries of the universe, like dark matter and dark energy. They’re burdened with helping us find other habitable worlds that might host life. And they’re busy with a multitude of other tasks, like documenting the end of a star’s life, or keeping an eye on meteors that get too close to Earth.

But sometimes, they have to take a break.
Continue reading “This Beautiful Photo of Galaxy NGC 3981 was Taken by the Most Powerful Telescope in the World for no Scientific Reason at all. Just Because it’s Pretty”

Telescope Pierces into One of the Biggest Nebulae in the Milky Way to Reveal its Newly Forming (and Nearly Dying) Stars

Located about 7500 light-years from Earth, in the constellation of Carina, lies a star-forming region known as the Carina Nebula. This dynamic, evolving cloud of interstellar gas and dust measures about 300 light-years in diameter and is one of the Milky Way’s largest star-forming regions. It is also an exercise in contrasts, consisting of bright regions of gas illuminated by intense stellar radiation and dark pillars of dust that obscure star formation.
Continue reading “Telescope Pierces into One of the Biggest Nebulae in the Milky Way to Reveal its Newly Forming (and Nearly Dying) Stars”

Einstein Was Right… Again! Successful Test of General Relativity Near a Supermassive Black Hole

In 1915, Albert Einstein published his famous Theory of General Relativity, which provided a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time. This theory gave rise to the modern theory of gravitation and revolutionized our understanding of physics. Even though a century has passed since then, scientists are still conducting experiments that confirm his theory’s predictions.

Thanks to recent observations made by a team of international astronomers (known as the GRAVITY collaboration), the effects of General Relativity have been revealed using a Supermassive Black Hole (SMBH) for the very first time. These findings were the culmination of a 26-year campaign of observations of the SMBH at the center of the Milky Way (Sagittarius A*) using the European Southern Observatory‘s (ESO) instruments.

The study which describes the team’s findings recently appeared in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, titled “Detection of the gravitational redshift in the orbit of the star S2 near the Galactic centre massive black hole“. The study was led by Roberto Arbuto of the ESO and included members from the GRAVITY collaboration – which is led by Reinhard Genzel of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) and includes astronomers from multiple European universities and research institutes.

Annotated image of the path of the star S2 as it passes very close to the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

For the sake of their study, the team relied on data gathered by the VLT’s extremely sensitive and high-precision instruments. These included the GRAVITY astrometric and interferometry instrument, the Spectrograph for INtegral Field Observations in the Near Infrared (SINFONI) instrument, and the Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System (NAOS) – Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph (CONICA) instrument, which are together known as NACO.

The new infrared observations collected by these instruments allowed the team to monitor one of the stars (S2) that orbits Sagittarius A* as it passed in front of the black hole – which took place in May of 2018. At the closest point in its orbit, the star was at a distance of less than 20 billion km (12.4 billion mi) from the black hole and was moving at a speed in excess of 25 million km/h (15 million mph) – almost three percent of the speed of light.

Whereas the SINFONI instrument was used to measure the velocity of S2 towards and away from Earth, the GRAVITY instrument in the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) made extraordinarily precise measurements of the changing position of S2 in order to define the shape of its orbit. The GRAVITY instrument then created the sharp images that revealed the motion of the star as it passed close to the black hole.

The team then compared the position and velocity measurements to previous observations of S2 using other instruments. They then compared these results with predictions made by Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation, General Relativity, and other theories of gravity. As expected, the new results were consistent with the predictions made by Einstein over a century ago.

As Reinhard Genzel, who in addition to being the leader of the GRAVITY collaboration was a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESO press release:

“This is the second time that we have observed the close passage of S2 around the black hole in our galactic center. But this time, because of much improved instrumentation, we were able to observe the star with unprecedented resolution. We have been preparing intensely for this event over several years, as we wanted to make the most of this unique opportunity to observe general relativistic effects.”

When observed with the VLT’s new instruments, the team noted an effect called gravitational redshift, where the light coming from S2 changed color as it drew closer to the black hole. This was caused by the very strong gravitational field of the black hole, which stretched the wavelength of the star’s light, causing it to shift towards the red end of the spectrum.

The change in the wavelength of light from S2 agrees precisely with what Einstein’s field equation’s predicted. As Frank Eisenhauer – a researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Extraterrestrial Physics, the Principal Investigator of GRAVITY and the SINFONI spectrograph, and a co-author on the study – indicated:

Our first observations of S2 with GRAVITY, about two years ago, already showed that we would have the ideal black hole laboratory. During the close passage, we could even detect the faint glow around the black hole on most of the images, which allowed us to precisely follow the star on its orbit, ultimately leading to the detection of the gravitational redshift in the spectrum of S2.

Whereas other tests have been performed that have confirmed Einstein’s predictions, this is the first time that the effects of General Relativity have been observed in the motion of a star around a supermassive black hole. In this respect, Einstein has been proven right once again, using one the most extreme laboratory to date! What’s more, it confirmed that tests involving relativistic effects can provide consistent results over time and space.

“Here in the Solar System we can only test the laws of physics now and under certain circumstances,” said Françoise Delplancke, head of the System Engineering Department at ESO. “So it’s very important in astronomy to also check that those laws are still valid where the gravitational fields are very much stronger.”

In the near future, another relativistic test will be possible as S2 moves away from the black hole. This is known as a Schwarzschild precession, where the star is expected to experience a small rotation in its orbit. The GRAVITY Collaboration will be monitoring S2 to observe this effect as well, once again relying on the VLT’s very precise and sensitive instruments.

As Xavier Barcons (the ESO’s Director General) indicated, this accomplishment was made possible thanks to the spirit of international cooperation represented by the GRAVITY collaboration and the instruments they helped the ESO develop:

“ESO has worked with Reinhard Genzel and his team and collaborators in the ESO Member States for over a quarter of a century. It was a huge challenge to develop the uniquely powerful instruments needed to make these very delicate measurements and to deploy them at the VLT in Paranal. The discovery announced today is the very exciting result of a remarkable partnership.”

And be sure to check out this video of the GRAVITY Collaboration’s successful test, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Astronomy and Astrophysics

Stunning First Ever Photograph of a Newly Forming Planet

For decades, the most widely-accepted view of how our Solar System formed has been the Nebular Hypothesis. According to this theory, the Sun, the planets, and all other objects in the Solar System formed from nebulous material billions of years ago. This dust experienced a gravitational collapse at the center, forming our Sun, while the rest of the material formed a circumstellar debris ring that coalesced to form the planets.

Thanks to the development of modern telescopes, astronomers have been able to probe other star systems to test this hypothesis. Unfortunately, in most cases, astronomers have only been able to observe debris rings around stars with hints of planets in formation. It was only recently that a team of European astronomers were able to capture an image of a newborn planet, thus demonstrating that debris rings are indeed the birthplace of planets.

The team’s research appeared in two papers that were recently published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, titled “Discovery of a planetary-mass companion within the gap of the transition disk around PDS 70” and “Orbital and atmospheric characterization of the planet within the gap of the PDS 70 transition disk.” The team behind both studies included member from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) as well as multiple observatories and universities.

Near infrared image of the PDS70 disk obtained with the SPHERE instrument. Credit: ESO/A. Müller, MPIA

For the sake of their studies, the teams selected PDS 70b, a planet that was discovered at a distance of 22 Astronomical Units (AUs) from its host star and which was believed to be a newly-formed body. In the first study – which was led by Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy – the team indicated how they studied the protoplanetary disk around the star PDS 70.

PDS 70 is a low-mass T Tauri star located in the constellation Centaurus, approximately 370 light-years from Earth. This study was performed using archival images in the near-infrared band taken by the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Near-Infrared Coronagraphic Imager on the Gemini South Telescope.

Using these instruments, the team made the first robust detection of a young planet (PDS 70b) orbiting within a gap in its star’s protoplanetary disc and located roughly three billion km (1.86 billion mi) from its central star – roughly the same distance between Uranus and the Sun. In the second study, led by Andre Muller (also from the MPIA) the team describes how they used the SPHERE instrument to measure the brightness of the planet at different wavelengths.

From this, they were able to determine that PDS 70b is a gas giant that has about nine Jupiter masses and a surface temperature of about 1000 °C (1832 °F), making it a particularly “Hot Super-Jupiter”. The planet must be younger than its host star, and is probably still growing. The data also indicated that the planet is surrounded by clouds that alter the radiation emitted by the planetary core and its atmosphere.

Thanks to the advanced instruments used, the team was also able to acquire an image of the planet and its system. As you can see from the image (posted at top) and the video below, the planet is visible as a bright point to the right of the blackened center of the image. This dark region is due to a corongraph, which blocks the light from the star so the team could detect the much-fainter companion.

As Miriam Keppler, a postdoctoral student at the MPIA, explained in a recent ESO press statement:

“These discs around young stars are the birthplaces of planets, but so far only a handful of observations have detected hints of baby planets in them. The problem is that until now, most of these planet candidates could just have been features in the disc.”

In addition to spotting the young planet, the research teams also noted that it has sculpted the protoplanetary disc orbiting the star. Essentially, the planet’s orbit has traced a giant hole in the center of the disc after accumulating material from it. This means that PDS 70 b is still located in the vicinity of its birth place, is likely to still be accumulating material and will continue to grow and change.

For decades, astronomers have been aware of these gaps in the protoplanetary disc and speculated that they were produced by a planet. Now, they finally have the evidence to support this theory. As André Müller explained:

Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly-understood early stages of planetary evolution. We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.

These studies will be a boon to astronomers, especially when it comes to theoretical models of planet formation and evolution. By determining the planet’s atmospheric and physical properties, the astronomers have been able to test key aspects of the Nebular Hypothesis. The discovery of this young, dust-shrouded planet would not have been were if not for the capabilities of ESO’s SPHERE instrument.

This instrument studies exoplanets and discs around nearby stars using a technique known as high-contrast imaging, but also relies on advanced strategies and data processing techniques. In addition to blocking the light from a star with a coronagraph, SPHERE is able to filter out the signals of faint planetary companions around bright young stars at multiple wavelengths and epochs.

As Prof. Thomas Henning – the director at MPIA, the German co-investigator of the SPHERE instrument, and a senior author on the two studies – stated in a recent MPIA press release:

“After ten years of developing new powerful astronomical instruments such as SPHERE, this discovery shows us that we are finally able to find and study planets at the time of their formation. That is the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream.”

Future observations of this system will also allow astronomers to test other aspects of planet formation models and to learn about the early history of planetary systems. This data will also go a long way towards determining how our own Solar System formed and evolved during its early history.

Further Reading: ESO, MPIA, Astronomy & Astrophysics, Astronomy & Astrophysics (2)

Oumuamua Accelerated Out of the Solar System Like a Comet

On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii announced the first-ever detection of an interstellar asteroid – I/2017 U1 (aka. ‘Oumuamua). Originally though to be a comet, follow-up observations conducted by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and others confirmed that ‘Oumuamua was actually a rocky body that had originated outside of our Solar System.

Since that time, multiple studies have been conducted to learn more about this interstellar visitor, and some missions have even been proposed to go and study it up close. However, the most recent study of ‘Oumuamua, conducted by a team of international scientists, has determined that based on the way it left our Solar System, ‘Oumuamua is likely to be a comet after all.

The study recently appeared in the journal Nature under the title “Non-gravitational acceleration in the trajectory of  1I/2017 U1 (Oumuamua)“. The study team was led by Marco Micheli of the ESA SSA-NEO Coordination Center and the INAF Osservatorio Astronomico di Roma and included members from the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), the Planetary Science Institute, and The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHUAPL).

As noted, when it was first discovered – roughly a month after it made its closest approach to the Sun – scientists believed ‘Oumuamua was an interstellar comet. However, follow-up observations showed no evidence of gaseous emissions or a dusty environment around the body (i.e. a comet tail), thus leading to it being classified as a rocky interstellar asteroid.

This was followed by a team of international researchers conducting a study that showed how ‘Oumuamua was more icy that previously thought. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile and the William Herschel Telescope in La Palma, the team was able to obtain spectra from sunlight reflected off of ‘Oumuamua within 48 hours of the discovery. This revealed vital information about the composition of the object, and pointed towards it being icy rather than rocky.

The presence of an outer-layer of carbon rich material also explained why it did not experience outgassing as it neared the Sun. Following these initial observations, Marco Micheli and his team continued to conduct high-precision measurements of ‘Oumuamua and its position using ground-based facilities and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

By January, Hubble was able to snap some final images before the object became too faint to observe as it sped away from the Sun on its way to leaving the Solar System. To their surprise, they noted that the object was increasing its velocity deviating from the trajectory it would be following if only the gravity of the Sun and the planets were influencing its course.

Oumuamua as it appeared using the William Herschel Telescope on the night of October 29. Queen’s University Belfast/William Herschel Telescope

In short, they discovered that ‘Oumuamua was not slowing down as expected, and as of June 1st, 2018, was traveling at a speed of roughly 114,000 km/h (70,800 mph). The most likely explanation, according to the team, is that ‘Oumuamua is venting material from its surface due to solar heating (aka. outgassing). The release of this material would give ‘Oumuamua the steady push it needed to achieve this velocity.

As Davide Farnocchia, a researcher from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a co-author on the paper, explained in a recent ESA press release:

“We tested many possible alternatives and the most plausible one is that ’Oumuamua must be a comet, and that gasses emanating from its surface were causing the tiny variations in its trajectory.”

Moreover, the release of gas pressure would also explain how ‘Oumuamua is veering off course since outgassing has been known to have the effect of perturbing the comet’s path. Naturally, there are still some mysteries that still need to be solved about this body. For one, the team still has not detected any dusty material or chemical signatures that typically characterize a comet.

As such, the team concluded that ‘Oumuamua must have been releasing only a very small amount of dust, or perhaps was releasing more pure gas without much dust. In either case, ‘Oumuamua is estimated to be a very small object, measuring about 400 meters (1312 ft) long. In the end, the hypothesized outgassing of ‘Oumuamua remains a mystery, much like its origin.

Artist’s impression of the interstellar object, ‘Oumuamua, experiencing outgassing as it leaves our Solar System. Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA, ESO, M. Kornmesser

In fact, the team originally performed the Hubble observations on ‘Oumuamua in the hopes of determining its exact path, which they would then use to trace the object back to its parent star system. These new results mean this will be more challenging than originally thought. As Olivier Hainaut, a researcher from the European Southern Observatory and a co-author on the study, explained:

“It was extremely surprising that `Oumuamua first appeared as an asteroid, given that we expect interstellar comets should be far more abundant, so we have at least solved that particular puzzle. It is still a tiny and weird object, but our results certainly lean towards it being a comet and not an asteroid after all.”

Detlef Koschny, another co-author on the study, is responsible for Near-Earth Object activities under ESA’s Space Situational Awareness program. As he explained, the study of ‘Oumuamua has provided astronomers with the opportunity to improve asteroid detection methods, which could play a vital role in the study of Near-Earth Asteroids and determining if they post a risk.

“Interstellar visitors like these are scientifically fascinating, but extremely rare,” he said. “Near-Earth objects originating from within our Solar System are much more common and because these could pose an impact risk, we are working to improve our ability to scan the sky every night with telescopes such as our Optical Ground Station that contributed to this fascinating discovery.”

Since ‘Oumuamua’s arrival, scientists have determined that there may be thousands of interstellar asteroids currently in our Solar System, the largest of which would be tens of km in radius. Similarly, another study was conducted that revealed the presence of an interstellar asteroid (2015 BZ509) that – unlike ‘Oumuamua, which was an interloper to out system – was captured by Jupiter’s gravity and has since remained in a stable orbit.

This latest study is also timely given the fact that June 30th is global “Asteroid Day”, an annual event designed to raise awareness about asteroids and what can be done to protect Earth from a possible impact. In honor of this event, the ESA co-hosted a live webcast with the European Southern Observatory to discuss the latest science news and research on asteroids. To watch a replay of the webcast, go to the ESA’s Asteroid Day webpage.

Further Reading: ESA, ESO, TED, Nature

Look at This Fascinating Variety of Planet-Forming Disks Around Other Stars

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released a stunning collection of images of the circumstellar discs that surround young stars. The images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. We’ve been looking at images of circumstellar disks for quite some time, but this collection reveals the fascinating variety of shapes an sizes that these disks can take.

New images from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty discs surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. They show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming. Image: ESO/H. Avenhaus et al./E. Sissa et al./DARTT-S and SHINE collaborations

We have a widely-accepted model of star formation supported by ample evidence, including images like these ones from the ESO. The model starts with a cloud of gas and dust called a giant molecular cloud. Within that cloud, a pocket of gas and dust begins to coalesce. Eventually, as gravity causes material to fall inward, the pocket becomes more massive, and exerts even more gravitational pull. More gas and dust continues to be drawn in.

The material that falls in also gives some angular momentum to the pocket, which causes rotation. Once enough material is accumulated, fusion ignites and a star is born. At that point, there is a proto-star inside the cloud, with unused gas and dust remaining in a rotating ring around the proto-star. That left over rotating ring is called a circumstellar disc, out of which planets eventually form.

There are other images of circumstellar discs, but they’ve been challenging to capture. To image any amount of detail in the disks requires blocking out the light of the star at the center of the disk. That’s where SPHERE comes in.

A detailed view of the SPHERE instrument and its main subsystems. SPHERE is installed on the ESO’s VLT and saw first light in 2014. Image: ESO

SPHERE was added to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2014. It’s primary job is to directly image exoplanets, but it also has the ability to capture images of circumstellar discs. To do that, it separates two types of light: polarized, and non-polarized.

Light coming directly from a star—in these images, a young star still surrounded by a circumstellar disc—is non-polarized. But once that starlight is scattered by the material in the disk itself, the light becomes polarized. SPHERE, as its name suggests, is able to separate the two types of light and isolate just the light from the disk. That is how the instrument captures such fascinating images of the disks.

An edge-on view of the disc surrounding the star GSC 07396-00759. The disc extends from the lower-left to the upper-right and the central grey region shows where the star was masked out. Credit:
ESO/E. Sissa et al.

Ever since it became clear that exoplanets are not rare, and that most stars—maybe all stars—have planets orbiting them, understanding solar system formation has become a hot topic. The problem has been that we can’t really see it happening in real time. We can look at our own Solar System, and other fully formed ones, and make guesses about how they formed. But planet formation is hidden inside those circumstellar disss. Seeing into those disks is crucial to understanding the link between the properties of the disk itself and the planets that form in the system.

The discs imaged in this collection are mostly from a study called the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. T Tauri stars are young stars less than 10 million years old. At that age, planets are still in the process of forming. The stars range from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close. But the blinding bright light of the stars still makes it very difficult to capture the faint light of the discs.

One of the images is not a T Tauri star and is not from the DARTTS-S study. The disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, in the image above, is actually from the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey, though the images itself was captured with SPHERE. GSC 07396-00759 is a red star that’s part of a multiple star system that was part of the DARTTS-S study. The puzzling thing is that red star is the same age as the T TAURI star in the same system, but the ring around the red star is much more evolved. Why the two discs around two stars the same age are so different from each other in terms of time-scale and evolution is a puzzle, and is one of the reasons why astronomers want to study these discs much more closely.

We can study our own Solar System, and look at the positions and characteristics of the planets and the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt. From that we can try to guess how it all formed, but our only chance to understand how it all came together is to look at other younger solar systems as they form.

The SPHERE instrument, and other future instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to look into the circumstellar discs around other stars, and to tease out the details of planetary formation. These new images from SPHERE are a tantalizing taste of the detail and variety we can expect to see.

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.”