The Brightest Object Ever Seen in the Universe

This artist’s impression shows the record-breaking quasar J059-4351, the bright core of a distant galaxy that is powered by a supermassive black hole. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

It’s an exciting time in astronomy today, where records are being broken and reset regularly. We are barely two months into 2024, and already new records have been set for the farthest black hole yet observed, the brightest supernova, and the highest-energy gamma rays from our Sun. Most recently, an international team of astronomers using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile reportedly saw the brightest object ever observed in the Universe: a quasar (J0529-4351) located about 12 billion light years away that has the fastest-growing supermassive black hole (SMBH) at its center.

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Astronomers Test an Exoplanet Instrument on Jupiter

NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this view of Jupiter during the mission’s 40th close pass by the giant planet on Feb. 25, 2022. The large, dark shadow on the left side of the image was cast by Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Thomas Thomopoulos

The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has a high-resolution spectrograph called  ESPRESSO, designed specifically to detecting and characterize exoplanets. Astronomers recently ran a test with the instrument, studying the atmosphere and winds of Jupiter. They used a technique called Doppler velocimetry to measure the reflection of light from the Sun in the planet’s clouds, allowing for instantaneous measurement of the clouds’ wind speeds. The technique has also been used on Venus and will guide the future study of exoplanets.

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A Protoplanetary Disc Has Been Found… in Another Galaxy!

With the combined capabilities of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), a disc around a young massive star in another galaxy has been observed. The image at the centre shows the jets that accompany it. The top part of the jet is aimed slightly towards us and thus blueshifted; the bottom one is receding from us and thus redshifted. Observations from ALMA, right, then revealed the rotating disc around the star, similarly with sides moving towards and away from us. Credit: ESO/ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/A. McLeod et al.

Astronomers have imaged dozens of protoplanetary discs around Milky Way stars, seeing them at all stages of formation. Now, one of these discs has been found for the first time — excitingly — in another galaxy. The discovery was made using the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile along with the , which detected the telltale signature of a spinning disc around a massive star in the Large Magellanic Cloud, located 160,000 light-years away.

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Juno Spots Salts and Organic Molecules on Ganymede’s Surface

Enhanced image of Ganymede taken by the JunoCam during the mission's flyby on June 7th, 2021. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kalleheikki Kannisto

NASA’s Juno mission continues to orbit Jupiter, gathering data on its atmosphere, composition, gravitational field, magnetic field, and radiation environment. This data is helping scientists to learn more about the planet’s formation, internal structure, mass distribution, and what is driving its powerful winds. Periodically, the spacecraft also performs flybys of Jupiter’s largest satellites (the Galilean Moons), acquiring stunning images and vital data on their surfaces. These include optical and thermal images of Io’s many active volcanoes, Europa’s icy terrain, and infrared images of Ganymede.

During its last flyby of Ganymede (June 7th, 2021), Juno collected infrared images and spectra on the moon’s surface using its Jovian InfraRed Auroral Mapper (JIRAM) instrument. According to a recent study by an international team of researchers, this data revealed the presence of salt minerals and organic molecules on the icy moon’s surface. The findings could help scientists better understand the origin of Ganymede, the composition of its interior ocean, and the way material is exchanged between the surface and interior. In short, it could help scientists determine if life exists deep inside Ganymede’s ocean.

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A New Planet-Hunting Instrument Has Been Installed on the Very Large Telescope

ESO VLT
The setting Sun dips below the horizon of the Pacific Ocean, bathing the Paranal platform in light in this amazing aerial image from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Credit: ESO

Exoplanet studies have come a long way in a short time! To date, 5,523 exoplanets have been confirmed in 4,117 systems, with another 9,867 candidates awaiting confirmation. With all these planets available for study, exoplanet researchers have been shifting their focus from detection to characterization – i.e., looking for potential signs of life and biological activity (biosignatures). Some major breakthroughs are expected in the coming years, thanks in part to next-generation observatories like NASA’s James Webb and Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope and the ESA’s PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission.

Several ground-based facilities will also be vital to the characterization of exoplanets, like the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), and the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT). But there are also existing observatories that could be upgraded to perform vital exoplanet research. This idea was explored in a recent paper by an international team of astronomers, who presented the first light results of the High-Resolution Imaging and Spectroscopy of Exoplanets (HiRISE) recently installed on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) – not to be confused with the High-Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

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A Collection of New Images Reveal X-Rays Across the Universe

NASA/CXC/SAO, JPL-Caltech, MSFC, STScI, ESA/CSA, SDSS, ESO.

One of the miracles of modern astronomy is the ability to ‘see’ wavelengths of light that human eyes can’t. Last week, astronomers put that superpower to good use and released five new images showcasing the universe in every wavelength from X-ray to infrared.

Combining data from both Earth- and ground-based telescopes, the five images reveal a diverse set of astronomical phenomena, including the galactic centre, the death throes of stars, and distant galaxies traversing the cosmos.

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One of Neptune's Dark Spots Finally Seen From Earth

This image shows Neptune observed with the MUSE instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Credit: ESO/P. Irwin et al.

There’s no getting around it: our Solar System’s gas giants all have big, conspicuous spots on their faces. These include Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, Saturn’s Great White Spot, Uranus’ Great Dark Spot, and Neptune’s Great Dark Spot. Far from blemishes or features that tarnish the planets’ natural beauty, these “spots” are caused by massive storms or other processes in the planets’ atmospheres. While they are extremely large by Earth standards, they are difficult to study by anything other than robotic probes that can get close to the planet.

Neptune’s Great Dark Spot was not discovered until NASA’s Voyager 2 probe flew past the planet in 1989 on its way to the edge of the Solar System. Decades later, scientists are still unsure how this storm originated or what mechanisms drive it today. Using the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), a team of astronomers was able to observe the Great Dark Spot for the first time using a ground-based telescope. Their results provided the most detailed data on the spot to date and some interesting insights into the nature and origin of this mysterious feature.

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How Old is That Star? Ask a Computer

An open cluster of stars known as IC 4651, a stellar grouping that lies at in the constellation of Ara (The Altar). Credit: ESO

When measuring distances in the Universe, astronomers rely on what is known as the “Distance Ladder” – a succession of methods by which distances are measured to objects that are increasingly far from us. But what about age? Knowing with precision how old stars, star clusters, and galaxies are is also paramount to determining how the cosmos has evolved. Thanks to a new machine learning technique developed by researchers from Keele University, astronomers may have established the first rung on a “cosmic age ladder.”

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Another Look at the Aftermath of DART's Impact Into Dimorphos

This artist’s illustration shows the ejection of a cloud of debris after NASA’s DART spacecraft collided with the asteroid Dimorphos. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

When the DART spacecraft slammed into asteroid Dimorphos on September 26, 2022, telescopes worldwide (and in space) were watching as it happened. But others continued watching for numerous days afterward to observe the cloud of debris. DART’s (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) intentional impact was not only a test of planetary defense against an asteroid hitting our planet, but it also allowed astronomers the chance to study Dimorphos, a tiny moon or companion to asteroid Didymos.

New images released by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) show how the surface of the asteroid changed immediately after the impact when pristine materials from the interior of the asteroid were exposed. Other data tracked the debris’ evolution over a month, and provided details on how the debris changed over time. Additionally, astronomers searched for evidence of DART’s fuel but couldn’t find any.

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Warm Carbon Increased Suddenly in the Early Universe. Made by the First Stars?

While previous studies have suggested a rise in warm carbon, much larger samples – the basis of the new study – were needed to provide statistics to accurately measure the rate of this growth.

According to the most widely-accepted model of cosmology, the Universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago with the Big Bang. As the Universe cooled, the fundamental laws of physics (the electroweak force, the strong nuclear force, and gravity) and the first hydrogen atoms formed. By 370,000 years after the Big Bang, the Universe was permeated by neutral hydrogen and very few photons (the Cosmic Dark Ages). During the “Epoch of Reionization” that followed, the first stars and galaxies formed, reoinizing the neutral hydrogen and causing the Universe to become transparent.

For astronomers, the Epoch of Reionization still holds many mysteries, like when certain heavy elements formed. This includes the element carbon, a key ingredient in the formation of planets, an important element in organic processes, and the basis for life as we know it. According to a new study by the ARC Center of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3 Dimensions (ASTRO 3D), it appears that triply-ionized carbon (C iv) existed far sooner than previously thought. Their findings could have drastic implications for our understanding of cosmic evolution.

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