Three Iron Rings Around A Star Show Where Planets are Forming

Observations with the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) found various silicate compounds and potentially iron, substances we also find in large amounts in the solar system's rocky planets. Credit: Jenry

Researchers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) have found three iron rings around a young star about 500 light-years away. The rings indicate that planets are forming. What can these rings tell us about how Earth and the other planets in our Solar System formed?

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Ground-Based Telescope Directly Observes the Atmosphere of an Extrasolar Planet, and Sees Swirling Clouds of Iron and Silicates

An artist's illustration of the exoplanet HR8799e. The ESO's GRAVITY instrument on its Very Large Telescope Interferometer made the first direct optical observation of this planet and its atmosphere. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
An artist's illustration of the exoplanet HR8799e. The ESO's GRAVITY instrument on its Very Large Telescope Interferometer made the first direct optical observation of this planet and its atmosphere. Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

We’ve finally got our first optical look at an exoplanet and its atmosphere, and boy is it a strange place. The planet is called HR8799e, and its atmosphere is a complex one. HR8799e is in the grips of a global storm, dominated by swirling clouds of iron and silicates.

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Next Generation Telescopes Could Use “Teleportation” to Take Better Images

The Very Large Telescope in Chile firing a laser from its adaptive optics system. Credit: ESO

Telescopes have come a long way in the past few centuries. From the comparatively modest devices built by astronomers like Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler, telescopes have evolved to become massive instruments that require an entire facility to house them and a full crew and network of computers to run them. And in the coming years, much larger observatories will be constructed that can do even more.

Unfortunately, this trend towards larger and larger instruments has many drawbacks. For starters, increasingly large observatories require either increasingly large mirrors or many telescopes working together – both of which are expensive prospects.  Luckily, a team from MIT has proposed combining interferometry with quantum-teleportation, which could significantly increase the resolution of arrays without relying on larger mirrors.

This is the Surface of a Giant Star, 350 Times Larger Than the Sun

This artist’s impression shows the red supergiant star. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer, an international team of astronomers have constructed the most detailed image ever of this, or any star other than the Sun. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

When it comes to looking beyond our Solar System, astronomers are often forced to theorize about what they don’t know based on what they do. In short, they have to rely on what we have learned studying the Sun and the planets from our own Solar System in order to make educated guesses about how other star systems and their respective bodies formed and evolved.

For example, astronomers have learned much from our Sun about how convection plays a major role in the life of stars. Until now, they have not been able to conduct detailed studies of the surfaces of other stars because of their distances and obscuring factors. However, in a historic first, an international team of scientists recently created the first detailed images of the surface of a red giant star located roughly 530 light-years away.

The study recently appeared in the scientific journal Nature under the title “Large Granulation cells on the surface of the giant star Π¹ Gruis“. The study was led by Claudia Paladini of the Université libre de Bruxelles and included members from the European Southern Observatory, the Université de Nice Sophia-Antipolis, Georgia State University, the Université Grenoble Alpes, Uppsala University, the University of Vienna, and the University of Exeter.

The surface of the red giant star Π¹ Gruis from PIONIER on the VLT. Credit: ESO

For the sake of their study, the team used the Precision Integrated-Optics Near-infrared Imaging ExpeRiment (PIONIER) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) to observe the star known as Π¹ Gruis. Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), Π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. While it is the same mass as our Sun, it is 350 times larger and several thousand times as bright.

For decades, astronomers have sought to learn more about the convection properties and evolution of stars by studying red giants. These are what become of main sequence stars once they have exhausted their hydrogen fuel and expand to becomes hundreds of times their normal diameter. Unfortunately, studying the convection properties of most supergiant stars has been challenging because their surfaces are frequently obscured by dust.

After obtaining interferometric data on Π1 Gruis in September of 2014, the team then relied on image reconstruction software and algorithms to compose images of the star’s surface. These allowed the team to determine the convection patterns of the star by picking out its “granules”, the large grainy spots on the surface that indicate the top of a convective cell.

This was the first time that such images have been created, and represent a major breakthrough when it comes to our understanding of how stars age and evolve. As Dr. Fabien Baron, an assistant professor at Georgia State University and a co-author on the study, explained:

“This is the first time that we have such a giant star that is unambiguously imaged with that level of details. The reason is there’s a limit to the details we can see based on the size of the telescope used for the observations. For this paper, we used an interferometer. The light from several telescopes is combined to overcome the limit of each telescope, thus achieving a resolution equivalent to that of a much larger telescope.”

Earth scorched by red giant Sun
Artist’s impression of the Earth scorched by our Sun as it enters its Red Giant Branch phase. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fsgregs

This study is especially significant because Π1 Gruis in the last major phase of life and resembles what our Sun will look like when it is at the end of its lifespan. In other words, when our Sun exhausts its hydrogen fuel in roughly five billion years, it will expand significantly to become a red giant star. At this point, it will be large enough to encompass Mercury, Venus, and maybe even Earth.

As a result, studying this star will give scientists insight into the future activity, characteristics and appearance of our Sun. For instance, our Sun has about two million convective cells that typically measure 2,000 km (1243 mi) in diameter. Based on their study, the team estimates that the surface of Π1 Gruis has a complex convective pattern, with granules measuring about 1.2 x 10^8 km (62,137,119 mi) horizontally or 27 percent of the diameter of the star.

This is consistent with what astronomers have predicted, which was that giant and supergiant stars should only have a few large convective cells because of their low surface gravity. As Baron indicated:

“These images are important because the size and number of granules on the surface actually fit very well with models that predict what we should be seeing. That tells us that our models of stars are not far from reality. We’re probably on the right track to understand these kinds of stars.”

An illustration of the structure of the Sun and a red giant star, showing their convective zones. These are the granular zones in the outer layers of the stars. Credit: ESO

The detailed map also indicated differences in surface temperature, which were apparent from the different colors on the star’s surface. This are also consistent with what we know about stars, where temperature variations are indicative of processes that are taking place inside. As temperatures rise and fall, the hotter, more fluid areas become brighter (appearing white) while the cooler, denser areas become darker (red).

Looking ahead, Paladini and her team want to create even more detailed images of the surface of giant stars. The main aim of this is to be able to follow the evolution of these granules continuously, rather than merely getting snapshots of different points in time.

From these and similar studies, we are not only likely to learn more about the formation and evolution of different types of stars in our Universe; we’re also sure to get a better understanding of what our Solar System is in for.


Further Reading: Georgia State University, ESO, Nature

New Study of Antares Creates the Best Map Ever of a Distant Star

Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer astronomers have constructed this remarkable image of the red supergiant star Antares. This is the most detailed image ever of this object, or any other star apart from the Sun.

When stars exhaust their supply of hydrogen fuel, they exit the main sequence phase of their evolution and enter into what is known as the Red Giant Branch (RGB) phase. This is characterized by the stars expanding significantly and becoming tens of thousands of times larger than our Sun. They also become dimmer and cooler, which lends them a reddish-orange appearance (hence the name).

Recently, a team of astronomers used the ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) to map one such star, the red supergiant Antares. In so doing, they were able to create the most detailed map of a star other than our Sun. The images they took also revealed some unexpected things about this supergiant star, all of which could help astronomers to better understand the dynamics and evolution of red giant stars.

The study which details their work, titled “Vigorous Atmospheric Motions in the Red Supergiant Supernova Progenitor Antares“, recently appeared in the journal Nature. As indicated in the study, the team – which was led by Keiichi Ohnaka, an associate professor at the UCN Institute of Astronomy in Chile = relied on the VLTI at the ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile to map Antares’s surface and measure the motions of its surface material.

Artist’s impression of the red supergiant star Antares, located 550 ly away in the constellation of Scorpius. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

The purpose of their study was to chart how stars that have entered their RGB phase begin to change. The VLTI is uniquely suited to this task, since it is capable of combining light from four different telescopes – the 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes, or the smaller Auxiliary Telescopes – to create one virtual telescope that has the resolution of a telescope lens measuring 200 meters across.

This allows the VLTI to resolve fine details far beyond what can be seen with a single telescope. As Prof. Ohnaka explained in a recent ESO press statement:

How stars like Antares lose mass so quickly in the final phase of their evolution has been a problem for over half a century. The VLTI is the only facility that can directly measure the gas motions in the extended atmosphere of Antares — a crucial step towards clarifying this problem. The next challenge is to identify what’s driving the turbulent motions.”

For their study, the team relied on three of the VLTI Auxiliary Telescopes and an instrument called the Astronomical Multi-BEam combineR (AMBER). This near-infrared spectro-interferometric instrument combines three telescopic beams coherently, allowing astronomers to measure the visibilities and closure phases of stars. Using these instruments, the team obtained images of Antares’ surface over a small range of infrared wavelengths.

From these, the team was able to calculate the difference between the speed of atmospheric gas at different locations on Antares’ surface, as well as its average speed over the entire surface. This resulted in a two-dimensional velocity map of Antares, which is the first such map created of another star other than the Sun. As noted, it is also the most-detailed map of any star beyond our Solar System to date.

The study also made some interesting discoveries of what takes place on Antares’ surface and in its atmosphere. For example, they found evidence for high-speed upwellings of gas that reached distances of up to 1.7 Solar radii into space – much farther than previously thought. This, they claimed, could not be explained by convection alone, the process whereby cold material moves downwards and hot material upwards in a circular pattern.

This process occurs on Earth in the atmosphere and with ocean currents, but it is also responsible for moving pockets of hotter and colder gas around within stars. The fact that convection cannot explain the behavior of Antares extended atmosphere would therefore suggests that some new and unidentified process common to red giant stars must be responsible.

These results therefor offer new opportunities for research into stellar evolution, which is made possible thanks to next-generation instruments like the VTLI. As Ohnaka concluded:

“In the future, this observing technique can be applied to different types of stars to study their surfaces and atmospheres in unprecedented detail. This has been limited to just the Sun up to now. Our work brings stellar astrophysics to a new dimension and opens an entirely new window to observe stars.”

Not only is this kind of research improving our understanding of stars beyond our Solar System, it lets us know what to expect when our Sun exits it main sequence phase and begins expanding to become a red giant. Though that day is billions of years away and we can’t be certain humanity will even be around by that time, knowing the mechanics of stellar evolution is important to our understanding of the Universe.
It pays to know that even after we are gone, we can predict what will still be here and for how long. Be sure to check out this 3D animation of Antares, courtesy of the ESO:

Further Reading: ESO, Nature

Dust In The Wind… Black Hole Style

This artist’s impression shows the surroundings of the supermassive black hole at the heart of the active galaxy NGC 3783 in the southern constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Over the years, researchers have taken myriad observations of black holes and their environs, but now ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer is giving us the most detailed look of the dust around a black hole at the center of an active galaxy ever obtained. Originally expected to be contained within the ring-shaped torus around the black hole, the observation held a surprise as astronomers discovered that a significant amount of the dust was located both above and below the torus. What can this mean? According to the latest findings and contrary to popular theory, it is possible the dust is being evacuated from the region as a cool wind.

For the last two decades, astronomers have discovered that nearly all galaxies harbor a black hole at their hearts. In many cases, these monsters increase in size by accreting matter from the immediate vicinity. This, in turn, is responsible for the creation of active galactic nuclei (AGN), one of the most energetic objects in the Universe. Surrounding the super-luminous giants are rings of cosmic dust which originate from space – drawn in like water swirling down a dark drain. According to theory, the intense infrared radiation exerted by AGN must have originated from these dusty eddies.

Thanks to the powerful eye of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, astronomers have now seen something new in a nearby active galaxy cataloged as NGC 3783. While they observed the expected hot dust clocking in at some 700 to 1000 degrees Celsius, what they also observed confounded them… Huge amounts of cooler dust both above and below the main torus.

As Sebastian Hönig (University of California Santa Barbara, USA and Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany), lead author of the paper presenting the new results, explains, “This is the first time we’ve been able to combine detailed mid-infrared observations of the cool, room-temperature dust around an AGN with similarly detailed observations of the very hot dust. This also represents the largest set of infrared interferometry for an AGN published yet.”

Is this a black hole teething ring? From their observations, the researchers suspect the newly-discovered dust is flowing outward from the central black hole. This means the wind most likely plays a critical part in the tangled relationship of both the black hole and its surroundings. Apparently the black hole pulls immediate material into it, but the incredible amount of radiation this produces also seems to be pushing it away. Scientists are far from clear as to how these two processes work together, but the discovery of this dusty wind could lead to a better understanding of their evolution.

To get the resolution needed to study the core area of NGC 3783, astronomers needed to use the combined power of the Unit Telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Through this union, an interferometer is created – one capable of “seeing” with the equivalent of a 130-meter telescope.

Another team member, Gerd Weigelt (Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie, Bonn, Germany), explains, “By combining the world-class sensitivity of the large mirrors of the VLT with interferometry we are able to collect enough light to observe faint objects. This lets us study a region as small as the distance from our Sun to its closest neighbouring star, in a galaxy tens of millions of light-years away. No other optical or infrared system in the world is currently capable of this.”

What do these new observations mean to the world of astronomy? It might very well change the pattern of how we currently understand AGN. With proof that dust is being expelled by intense radiation, new models must be created – models which include this recent information of how dust can be distributed.

Hönig concludes, “I am now really looking forward to MATISSE, which will allow us to combine all four VLT Unit Telescopes at once and observe simultaneously in the near- and mid-infrared — giving us much more detailed data.” MATISSE, a second generation instrument for the VLTI, is currently under construction.

Original Story Source: ESO News Release.