New research from the Hubble Space Telescope and the ESO’s Very Large Telescope is dampening some of the enthusiasm in the search for life. Observations by both ‘scopes suggest that the raw materials necessary for life may be rare in solar systems centered around red dwarfs.
And if the raw materials aren’t there, it may mean that many of the exoplanets we’ve found in the habitable zones of other stars just aren’t habitable after-all.
Saturn is an icon. There’s nothing else like it in the Solar System, and it’s something even children recognize. But there’s a distant object that astronomers call the Saturn nebula, because from a distance it resembles the planet, with its pronounced ringed shape.
The Saturn nebula bears no relation to the planet, except in shape. It’s about five thousand light years away, so in a small backyard telescope, it does resemble the planet. But when astronomers train large telescopes on it, the illusion falls apart.
In the past thirty years, the number of planets discovered beyond our Solar System has grown exponentially. Unfortunately, due to the limitations of our technology, the vast majority of these exoplanets have been discovered by indirect means, often by detecting the transits of planets in front of their stars (the Transit Method) or by the gravitational influence they exert on their star (the Radial Velocity Method).
Very few have been imaged directly, where the planets have been observed in visible light or infrared wavelengths. One such planet is Beta Pictoris b, a young massive exoplanet that was first observed in 2008 by a team from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Recently, the same team tracked this planet as it orbited its star, resulting in some stunning images and an equally impressive time-lapse video.
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.
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 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:
Measuring the Variation of the Fundamental Physical Constants
Analyzing the Chemical Composition of Stars in Nearby Galaxies
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
Astronomers have been fascinated with globular clusters ever since they were first observed in 17th century. These spherical collections of stars are among the oldest known stellar systems in the Universe, dating back to the early Universe when galaxies were just beginning to grow and evolve. Such clusters orbit the centers of most galaxies, with over 150 known to belong to the Milky Way alone.
One of these clusters is known as NGC 3201, a cluster located about 16,300 light years away in the southern constellation of Vela. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, a team of astronomers recently studied this cluster and noticed something very interesting. According to the study they released, this cluster appears to have a black hole embedded in it.
For the sake of their study, the team relied on the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on the VLT to observe NGC 3201. This instrument is unique because of the way it allows astronomers to measure the motions of thousands of far away stars simultaneously. In the course of their observations, the team found that one of the cluster’s stars was being flung around at speeds of several hundred kilometers an hour and with a period of 167 days.
“It was orbiting something that was completely invisible, which had a mass more than four times the Sun — this could only be a black hole! The first one found in a globular cluster by directly observing its gravitational pull.”
This finding was rather unexpected, and constitutes the first time that astronomers have been able to detect an inactive black hole at the heart of a globular cluster – meaning that it is not currently accreting matter or surrounded by a glowing disc of gas. They were also able to estimate the black hole’s mass by measuring the movements of the star around it and thus extrapolating its enormous gravitational pull.
From its observed properties, the team determined that the rapidly-moving star is about 0.8 times the mass of our Sun and the mass of its black hole counterpart to be around 4.36 times the Sun’s mass. This put’s it in the “stellar-mass black hole” category, which are stars that exceeds the maximum mass allowance of a neutron star, but are smaller than supermassive black holes (SMBHs) – which exist at the centers of most galaxies.
This finding is highly significant, and not just because it was the first time that astronomers have observed a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. In addition, it confirms what scientists have been suspecting for a few years now, thanks to recent radio and x-ray studies of globular clusters and the detection of gravity wave signals. Basically, it indicates that black holes are more common in globular clusters than previously thought.
“Until recently, it was assumed that almost all black holes would disappear from globular clusters after a short time and that systems like this should not even exist!” said Giesers. “But clearly this is not the case – our discovery is the first direct detection of the gravitational effects of a stellar-mass black hole in a globular cluster. This finding helps in understanding the formation of globular clusters and the evolution of black holes and binary systems – vital in the context of understanding gravitational wave sources.”
This find was also significant given that the relationship between black holes and globular clusters remains a mysterious, but highly important one. Due to their high masses, compact volumes, and great ages, astronomers believe that clusters have produced a large number of stellar-mass black holes over the course of the Universe’s history. This discovery could therefore tell us much about the formation of globular clusters, black holes, and the origins of gravitational wave events.
And be sure to enjoy this ESO podcast explaining the recent discovery:
Since its deployment in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has given us some of the richest and most detailed images of our Universe. Many of these images were taken while observing a patch of sky located in the Fornax constellation between September 2003 and January 2004. This region, known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF), contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies, all of which existed roughly 13 billion years ago.
Looking to this region of space, multiple teams of astronomers used the MUSE instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to discover 72 previously unseen galaxies. In a series of ten recently released studies, these teams indicate how they measured the distance and properties of 1600 very faint galaxies in the Ultra Deep Field, revealing new information about star formation and the motions of galaxies in the early Universe.
The original HUDF images, which were published in 2004, were a major milestone for astronomy and cosmology. The thousands of galaxies it observed were dated to less than just a billion years after the Big Bang, ranging from 400 to 800 million years of age. This area was subsequently observed many times using the Hubble and other telescopes, which has resulted in the deepest views of the Universe to date.
One such telescope is the European Southern Observatory‘s (ESO) Very Large Telescope, located in the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Intrinsic to the studies of the HUDF was the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE), a panoramic integral-field spectrograph operating in the visible wavelength range. It was the data accumulated by this instrument that allowed for 72 new galaxies to be discovered from this tiny area of sky.
This was an unprecedented accomplishment, given that this is ten times as many galaxies that have had similar measurements performed on them in the last decade using ground-based telescopes. As Bacon indicated in an ESO press release:
“MUSE can do something that Hubble can’t — it splits up the light from every point in the image into its component colors to create a spectrum. This allows us to measure the distance, colors and other properties of all the galaxies we can see — including some that are invisible to Hubble itself.”
The galaxies detected in this survey were also 100 times fainter than any galaxies studied in previous surveys. Given their age and their very dim and distant nature, the study of these 1600 galaxies is sure to add to any already very richly-observed field. This,in turn, can only deepen our understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved during the past 13 billions years.
The 72 newly-discovered galaxies that the survey observed are known as Lyman-alpha emitters, a class of galaxy that is extremely distant and only detectable in Lyman-alpha light. This form of radiation is emitted by excited hydrogen atoms, and is thought to be the result of ongoing star formation. Our current understanding of star formation cannot fully explain these galaxies, and they were not visible in the original Hubble images.
Thanks to MUSE’s ability to disperse light into its component colors, these galaxies became more apparent. As Jarle Brinchmann – an astronomer at the University of Leiden and the University of Porto’s (CAUP) Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences, and the lead author of one of the papers – described the results of the survey:
“MUSE has the unique ability to extract information about some of the earliest galaxies in the Universe — even in a part of the sky that is already very well studied. We learn things about these galaxies that is only possible with spectroscopy, such as chemical content and internal motions — not galaxy by galaxy but all at once for all the galaxies!”
Another major finding of this survey was the systematic detection of luminous hydrogen halos around galaxies in the early Universe. This finding is expected to give astronomers a new and promising way to study how material flowed in and out of early galaxies, which was central to early star formation and galactic evolution. The series of studies produced by Bacon and his colleagues also indicate a range of other possibilities.
These include studying the role faint galaxies played during cosmic reionization, the period that took place between 150 million to billion years after the Big Bang. It was during this period, which followed the “dark ages” (380 thousand to 150 million years ago) that the first stars and quasars formed and sent ionizing radiation throughout the early Universe. And as Roland Bacon explained, the best may yet be to come:
“Remarkably, these data were all taken without the use of MUSE’s recent Adaptive Optics Facility upgrade. The activation of the AOF after a decade of intensive work by ESO’s astronomers and engineers promises yet more revolutionary data in the future.”
Even before Einstein proposed his groundbreaking Theory of General Relativity – which established that space and time are inextricably linked – scientists have understood that probing deeper into the cosmic field is to also probe farther back in time. The farther we are able to see, the more we are able to learn about how the Universe evolved over the course of billions of years.
Back in October, the announcement of the first interstellar asteroid triggered a flurry of excitement. Since that time, astronomers have conducted follow-up observations of the object known as 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua) and noted some rather interesting things about it. For example, from rapid changes in its brightness, it has been determined that the asteroid is rocky and metallic, and rather oddly-shaped.
Observations of the asteroid’s orbit have also revealed that it made its closest pass to our Sun back in September of 2017, and it is currently on its way back to interstellar space. Because of the mysteries this body holds, there are those who are advocating that it be intercepted and explored. One such group is Project Lyra, which recently released a study detailing the challenges and benefits such a mission would present. Continue reading “Project Lyra, a Mission to Chase Down that Interstellar Asteroid”
On October 19th, 2017, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System-1 (Pan-STARRS-1) telescope in Hawaii picked up the first interstellar asteroid, named 1I/2017 U1 (aka. `Oumuamua). After originally being mistaken for a comet, observations performed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other astronomers indicated that it was actually an asteroid that measures about 400 meters (1312 ft) long.
The VLT was intrinsic to the combined effort to characterize the fast-moving asteroid rapidly, as it needed to be observed before it passed back into interstellar space again. Based on initial calculations of `Oumuamua’s orbit, astronomers had determined that it had already passed the closest point in its orbit to the Sun in September of 2017. Together with other large telescopes, the VLT captured images of the asteroid using its FORS instrument.
What these revealed was that `Oumuamua varies dramatically in terms of brightness (by a factor of ten) as it spins on its axis every 7.3 hours. As Dr. Meech explained in an ESO press release, this was both surprising and highly significant:
“This unusually large variation in brightness means that the object is highly elongated: about ten times as long as it is wide, with a complex, convoluted shape. We also found that it has a dark red colour, similar to objects in the outer Solar System, and confirmed that it is completely inert, without the faintest hint of dust around it.”
These observations also allowed Dr. Meech and her team to constrain Oumuamua’s composition and basic properties. Essentially, the asteroid is now believed to be a dense and rocky asteroid with a high metal content and little in the way of water ice. It’s dark and reddened surface is also an indication of tholins, which are the result of organic molecules (like methane) being irradiated by cosmic rays for millions of years.
Unlike other asteroids that have been studied in Near-Earth space and the Solar System at large, `Oumuamua is unique in that it is not bound by the Sun’s gravity. In addition to originating outside of our Solar System, its hyperbolic orbit – which has an eccentricity of 1.2 – means that it will head back out into interstellar space after its brief encounter with our Solar System.
Based on preliminary calculations of its orbit, astronomers have deduced that it came from the general direction of Vega, the brightest star in the northern constellation of Lyra. Traveling at a whopping speed of 95,000 km/hour (59,000 mph), `Oumuamua would have left the Vega system about 300,000 years ago. However, it is also possible that the asteroid may have originated somewhere else entirely, wandering the Milky Way for millions of years.
Astronomers estimate that interstellar asteroids like `Oumuamua pass through the inner Solar System at a rate of about once a year. But until now, they have been too faint and difficult to detect in visible light, and have therefore gone unnoticed. It is only recently that survey telescopes like Pan-STARRS have been powerful enough to have a chance at detecting them.
Hence what makes this discovery so significant in the first place. As the first asteroid of its kind to be detected, further improvements in our instruments will it make it easier to spot the others that are sure to be on the way. And as Olivier Hainaut – a researcher with the ESO and a co-author on the study – indicated, there’s plenty more to be learned from `Oumuamua as well:
“We are continuing to observe this unique object, and we hope to more accurately pin down where it came from and where it is going next on its tour of the galaxy,” he said. “And now that we have found the first interstellar rock, we are getting ready for the next ones!”
And be sure to enjoy this ESOcast video about `Oumuamua, courtesy of the ESO:
The hunt for exoplanets has turned up many fascinating case studies. For example, surveys have turned up many “Hot Jupiters”, gas giants that are similar in size to Jupiter but orbit very close to their suns. This particular type of exoplanet has been a source of interest to astronomers, mainly because their existence challenges conventional thinking about where gas giants can exist in a star system.
Hence why an international team led by researchers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) used the Very Large Telescope (VLT) to get a better look at WASP-19b, a Hot Jupiter located 815 light-years from Earth. In the course of these observations, they noticed that the planet’s atmosphere contained traces of titanium oxide, making this the first time that this compound has been detected in the atmosphere of a gas giant.
Like all Hot Jupiters, WASP-19b has about the same mass as Jupiter and orbits very close to its sun. In fact, its orbital period is so short – just 19 hours – that temperatures in its atmosphere are estimated to reach as high as 2273 K (2000 °C; 3632 °F). That’s over four times as hot as Venus, where temperatures are hot enough to melt lead! In fact, temperatures on WASP-19b are hot enough to melt silicate minerals and platinum!
The study relied on the FOcal Reducer/low dispersion Spectrograph 2 (FORS2) instrument on the VLT, a multi-mode optical instrument capable of conducting imaging, spectroscopy and the study of polarized light (polarimetry). Using FORS2, the team observing the planet as it passed in front of its star (aka. made a transit), which revealed valuable spectra from its atmosphere.
After carefully analyzing the light that passed through its hazy clouds, the team was surprised to find trace amounts of titanium oxide (as well as sodium and water). As Elyar Sedaghati, who spent 2 years as a student with the ESO to work on this project, said of the discovery in an ES press release:
“Detecting such molecules is, however, no simple feat. Not only do we need data of exceptional quality, but we also need to perform a sophisticated analysis. We used an algorithm that explores many millions of spectra spanning a wide range of chemical compositions, temperatures, and cloud or haze properties in order to draw our conclusions.”
Titanium oxide is a very rare compound which is known to exist in the atmospheres of cool stars. In small quantities, it acts as a heat absorber, and is therefore likely to be partly responsible for WASP-19b experiencing such high temperatures. In large enough quantities, it can prevent heat from entering or escaping an atmosphere, causing what is known as thermal inversion.
This is a phenomena where temperatures are higher in the upper atmosphere and lower further down. On Earth, ozone plays a similar role, causing an inversion of temperatures in the stratosphere. But on gas giants, this is the opposite of what usually happens. Whereas Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune experience colder temperatures in their upper atmospheres, temperatures are much hotter closer to the core due to increases in pressure.
The team believes that the presence of this compound could have a substantial effect on the atmosphere’s temperature, structure and circulation. What’s more, the fact that the team was able to detect this compound (a first for exoplanet researchers) is an indication of how exoplanet studies are achieving new levels of detail. All of this is likely to have a profound impact on future studies of exoplanet atmospheres.
The study would also have not been possible were it not for the FORS2 instrument, which was added to the VLT array in recent years. As Henri Boffin, the instrument scientist who led the refurbishment project, commented:
“This important discovery is the outcome of a refurbishment of the FORS2 instrument that was done exactly for this purpose. Since then, FORS2 has become the best instrument to perform this kind of study from the ground.”
Looking ahead, it is clear that the detection of metal oxides and other similar substances in exoplanet atmospheres will also allow for the creation of better atmospheric models. With these in hand, astronomers will be able to conduct far more detailed and accurate studies on exoplanet atmospheres, which will allow them to gauge with greater certainty whether or not any of them are habitable.
So while this latest planet has no chance of supporting life – you’d have better luck finding ice cubes in the Gobi desert! – its discovery could help point the way towards habitable exoplanets in the future. On step closer to finding a world that could support life, or possibly that elusive Earth 2.0!