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In the famous scene from the Star Wars movie “A New Hope” we recall young Luke Skywalker contemplating his future in the light of a binary sunset on the planet Tatooine. Not so many years later in 2011, astronomers using the Kepler Space Telescope discovered Kepler-16b, the first Tatooine-like planet known to orbit two suns in a binary system. Now astronomers have found a planet in a triple star system where an observer would either experience constant daylight or enjoy triple sunrises and sunsets each day, depending on the seasons, which last longer than human lifetimes.
They used the SPHERE instrument on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope to directly image the planet, the first ever found inside a triple-star system. The three stars are named HD 131399A, HD 131399B and HD 131399C in order of decreasing brightness; the planet orbits the brightest and goes by the chunky moniker HD 131399Ab.
Located about 320 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus the Centaur HD 131399Ab is about 16 million years old, making it also one of the youngest exoplanets discovered to date, and one for which we have a direct image. With a temperature of around 1,075° F (580° C) and the mass about four times that of Jupiter, it’s also one of the coldest and least massive directly-imaged exoplanets.
To pry it loose from the glare of its host suns, a team of astronomers led by the University of Arizona used a state of the art adaptive optics system to give razor-sharp images coupled with SPHERE, an instrument that blocks the light from the central star(s) similar to the way a coronagraph blocks the brilliant solar disk and allows study of the Sun’s corona. Finally, the region around the star is photographed in infrared polarized light to make any putative planets stand out more clearly against the remaining glare.
The planet, HD 131399Ab, is unlike any other known world — its orbit around the brightest of the three stars is by far the widest known within a multi-star system. It was once thought that planets orbiting a multi-star system would be unstable because of the changing gravitational tugs on the planet from the other two stars. Yet this planet remains in orbit instead of getting booted out of the system, leading astronomers to think that planets orbiting multiple stars might be more common that previously thought.
HD 131399Ab orbits HD 131399A, estimated to be 80% more massive than the Sun. Its double-star companions orbit about 300 times the Earth-Sun distance away. For much of the planet’s 550 year orbit, all three stars would appear close together in the sky and set one after the other in unique triple sunsets and sunrises each day. But when the planet reached the other side of its orbit around its host sun, that star and the pair would lie in opposite parts of the sky. As the pair set, the host would rise, bathing HD 131399Ab in near-constant daytime for about one-quarter of its orbit, or roughly 140 Earth-years.
Click to see a wonderful simulation showing how the planet orbits within the trinary system
Planets in multi-star systems are of special interest to astronomers and planetary scientists because they provide an example of how the mechanism of planetary formation functions in these more extreme scenarios. Since multi-star systems are just as common as single stars, so planets may be too.
How would our perspective of the cosmos change I wonder if Earth orbited triple suns instead of a single star? Would the sight deepen our desire for adventure like the fictional Skywalker? Or would we suffer the unlucky accident of being born at the start of a multi-decade long stretch of constant daylight? Wonderful musings for the next clear night under the stars.
Two white dwarfs circle around one other, locked in a fatal tango. With an intimate orbit and a hefty combined mass, the pair is ultimately destined to collide, merge, and erupt in a titanic explosion: a Type Ia supernova.
Or so goes the theory behind the infamous “standard candles” of cosmology.
Now, in a paper published in today’s issue of Nature, a team of astronomers have announced observational support for such an arrangement – two massive white dwarf stars that appear to be on track for a very explosive demise.
The astronomers were originally studying variations in planetary nebulae, the glowing clouds of gas that red giant stars throw off as they fizzle into white dwarfs. One of their targets was the planetary nebula Henize 2-428, an oddly lopsided specimen that, the team believed, owed its shape to the existence of two central stars, rather than one. After observing the nebula with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the astronomers concluded that they were correct – Henize 2-428 did, in fact, have a binary star system at its heart.
“Further observations made with telescopes in the Canary Islands allowed us to determine the orbit of the two stars and deduce both the masses of the two stars and their separation,” said Romano Corradi, a member of the team.
And that is where things get juicy.
In fact, the two stars are whipping around each other once every 4.2 hours, implying a narrow separation that is shrinking with each orbit. Moreover, the system has a combined heft of 1.76 solar masses – larger, by any count, than the restrictive Chandrasekhar limit, the maximum ~1.4 solar masses that a white dwarf can withstand before it detonates. Based on the team’s calculations, Henize 2-428 is likely to be the site of a type Ia supernova within the next 700 million years.
“Until now, the formation of supernovae Type Ia by the merging of two white dwarfs was purely theoretical,” explained David Jones, another of the paper’s coauthors. “The pair of stars in Henize 2-428 is the real thing!”
Check out this simulation, courtesy of the ESO, for a closer look at the fate of the dynamic duo:
Astronomers should be able to use the stars of Henize 2-428 to test and refine their models of type Ia supernovae – essential tools that, as lead author Miguel Santander-García emphasized, “are widely used to measure astronomical distances and were key to the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating due to dark energy.” This system may also enhance scientists’ understanding of the precursors of other irregular planetary nebulae and supernova remnants.
The team’s work was published in the February 9 issue of Nature. A copy of the paper is available here.
What’s it like to spend a night at a huge telescope observatory? Jordi Busque recorded a brilliant timelapse of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). What makes this video unique is not only the exotic location in Chile, but the use of sound in the area rather than music.
Gaia, ESA’s long-anticipated mission to map the stars of our galaxy (as well as do a slew of other cool science things) is now tucked comfortably in its position in orbit around Earth-Moon L2, a gravitationally stable spot in space 1.5 million km (932,000 miles) away.
Once its mission begins in earnest, Gaia will watch about a billion stars an average of 70 times each over a five-year span… that’s 40 million observations every day. It will measure the position and key physical properties of each star, including its brightness, temperature and chemical composition, and help astronomers create the most detailed 3D map of the Milky Way ever.
But before Gaia can do this, its own position must be precisely determined. And so several of the world’s most high-powered telescopes are trained on Gaia, keeping track daily of exactly where it is up to an accuracy of 150 meters… which, with the ten-meter-wide spacecraft one and a half million kilometers away, isn’t too shabby.
Called GBOT, for Ground Based Orbit Tracking, the campaign to monitor Gaia’s position was first set up in 2008 — long before the mission launched. This allowed participating observatories to practice targeting on other existing spacecraft, like NASA’s WMAP and ESA’s Planck space telescopes.
The image above shows an image of Gaia (circled) as seen by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope (VST) atop Cerro Paranal in Chile, one of the supporting observatories in the GBOT campaign. The images were taken with the 2.6-meter Survey Telescope’s 268-megapixel OmegaCAM on Jan. 23, 6.5 minutes apart. With just the reflected sunlight off its circular sunshield, the distant spacecraft is about a million times fainter than what your eyes could see unaided.
It’s also one the closest objects ever imaged by the VST.
Currently Gaia is still undergoing calibration for its survey mission. Some problems have been encountered with stray sunlight reaching its detectors, and this may be due to the angle of the sunshield being a few degrees too high relative to the Sun. It could take a few weeks to implement an orientation correction; read more on the Gaia blog here.
Of the billion stars Gaia will observe, 99% have never had their distances accurately measured. Gaia will also observe 500,000 distant quasars, search for brown dwarfs and exoplanets, and will conduct experiments testing Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Find out more facts about the mission here.
Gaia launched on December 19, 2013, aboard a Soyuz VS06 from ESA’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Watch the launch here.
As the chill of winter settles into the northern hemisphere, fantasies of down-south travel pervade a lot of people’s dreams. Well, here’s a virtual journey to warm climes for astronomy buffs: a beautiful, music-filled timelapse of several European Southern Observatory telescopes gazing at the heavens in Chile.
Uploaded in 2011 (but promoted this morning on ESO’s Twitter feed), the timelapse was taken by astrophotographers Stéphane Guisard (also an ESO engineer) and José Francisco Salgado (who is also an astronomer at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.) Telescopes include:
If you thought all was reasonably quiet at the center of the Milky Way, you’d be wrong. Of course, you knew there was a black hole waiting… but did you know the ESO’s Very Large Telescope has seen a cloud of gas being ripped apart by its influence? Thanks to new observations, we’re able to see – in real time – a gaseous region so stretched that its leading edge has reached the event horizon and it’s retreating from the black hole at more than 10 million km/h while the trailing end is still falling inward!
Just two years ago, the VLT observed a gas cloud several times the mass of Earth making haste towards the Milky Way’s central black hole… an oblivion which dwarfs the cloud by about a trillion times. Right now the plucky cloud has reached its closest approach and “spaghettification” has began. The vaporous vagabond is being stretched out of proportion by the black hole’s gravitational field.
“The gas at the head of the cloud is now stretched over more than 160 billion kilometres around the closest point of the orbit to the black hole. And the closest approach is only a bit more than 25 billion kilometres from the black hole itself — barely escaping falling right in,” explains Stefan Gillessen (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Garching, Germany) who led the observing team. “The cloud is so stretched that the close approach is not a single event but rather a process that extends over a period of at least one year.”
At this point, the gas cloud is becoming so thin that its light is difficult to detect. However, by using the SINFONI instrument on the VLT, researchers took 20 hours of exposure time with the integral field spectrometer and were able to measure the velocity of various regions of the gas cloud as it blazes by the black hole.
“The most exciting thing we now see in the new observations is the head of the cloud coming back towards us at more than 10 million km/h along the orbit — about 1% of the speed of light,” adds Reinhard Genzel, leader of the research group that has been studied this region for nearly twenty years. “This means that the front end of the cloud has already made its closest approach to the black hole.”
Where the gas cloud originated is anyone’s guess – but there are suggestions. Possibilities include jets from the galactic center, or stellar winds from orbiting stars. There may have once been a star in the center of the cloud, and the gas may have been a product of its winds or even a protoplanetary disk. In any circumstance, these new observations help to sort out the variety of possibilities.
“Like an unfortunate astronaut in a science fiction film, we see that the cloud is now being stretched so much that it resembles spaghetti. This means that it probably doesn’t have a star in it,” concludes Gillessen. “At the moment we think that the gas probably came from the stars we see orbiting the black hole.”
It’s an exciting time to be an astronomer. Through the “eyes” of the VLT, researchers the world over are able to watch a very unique event as it happens and not after the fact. ” This intense observing campaign will provide a wealth of data, not only revealing more about the gas cloud, but also probing the regions close to the black hole that have not been previously studied and the effects of super-strong gravity.”
As this drama at the heart of the Milky Way unfolds, astronomers are able to witness its many changes – “from purely gravitational and tidal to complex, turbulent hydrodynamics.”
If you live in the U.S. you may be enjoying a sultry summer day off in honor of Independence Day, or at least have plans to get together with friends and family at some point to partake in some barbecued goodies and a favorite beverage (or three). And as you saunter around the picnic table scooping up platefuls of potato salad, cole slaw, and deviled eggs, you can also draw a correlation between your own steady accumulation of mayonnaise-marinated mass and a distant hungry galaxy located over 11 billion light-years away.
Astronomers have always suspected that galaxies grow by pulling in material from their surroundings, but this process has proved very difficult to observe directly. Now, ESO’s Very Large Telescope has been used to study a very rare alignment between a distant galaxy and an even more distant quasar — the extremely bright center of a galaxy powered by a supermassive black hole. The light from the quasar passes through the material around the foreground galaxy before reaching Earth, making it possible to explore in detail the properties of the in-falling gas and giving the best view so far of a galaxy in the act of feeding.
“This kind of alignment is very rare and it has allowed us to make unique observations,” said Nicolas Bouché of the Research Institute in Astrophysics and Planetology (IRAP) in Toulouse, France, lead author of the new paper. “We were able to use ESO’s Very Large Telescope to peer at both the galaxy itself and its surrounding gas. This meant we could attack an important problem in galaxy formation: how do galaxies grow and feed star formation?”
Galaxies quickly deplete their reservoirs of gas as they create new stars and so must somehow be continuously replenished with fresh gas to keep going. Astronomers suspected that the answer to this problem lay in the collection of cool gas from the surroundings by the gravitational pull of the galaxy. In this scenario, a galaxy drags gas inwards which then circles around it, rotating with it before falling in.
Although some evidence of such accretion had been observed in galaxies before, the motion of the gas and its other properties had not been fully explored up to now.
Astronomers have already found evidence of material around galaxies in the early Universe, but this is the first time that they have been able to show clearly that the material is moving inwards rather than outwards, and also to determine the composition of this fresh fuel for future generations of stars. And in this particular instance, without the quasar’s light to act as a probe the surrounding gas would be undetectable.
“In this case we were lucky that the quasar happened to be in just the right place for its light to pass through the infalling gas. The next generation of extremely large telescopes will enable studies with multiple sightlines per galaxy and provide a much more complete view,” concluded co-author Crystal Martin of the University of California Santa Barbara.
This research was presented in a paper entitled “Signatures of Cool Gas Fueling a Star-Forming Galaxy at Redshift 2.3”, to appear in the July 5, 2013 issue of the journal Science.
This Saturday will mark 15 years that the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) first opened its eyes on the Universe, and ESO is celebrating its first-light anniversary with a beautiful and intriguing new image of the stellar nursery IC 2944, full of bright young stars and ink-black clouds of cold interstellar dust.
This is the clearest ground-based image yet of IC 2944, located 6,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Centaurus.
Emission nebulae like IC 2944 are composed mostly of hydrogen gas that glows in a distinctive shade of red, due to the intense radiation from the many brilliant newborn stars. Clearly revealed against this bright backdrop are mysterious dark clots of opaque dust, cold clouds known as Bok globules. They are named after Dutch-American astronomer Bart Bok, who first drew attention to them in the 1940s as possible sites of star formation. This particular set is nicknamed the Thackeray Globules.
Larger Bok globules in quieter locations often collapse to form new stars but the ones in this picture are under fierce bombardment from the ultraviolet radiation from nearby hot young stars. They are both being eroded away and also fragmenting, like lumps of butter dropped into a hot frying pan. It is likely that Thackeray’s Globules will be destroyed before they can collapse and form stars.
This new picture celebrates an important anniversary for the the VLT – it will be fifteen years since first light on the first of its four Unit Telescopes on May 25, 1998. Since then the four original giant telescopes have been joined by the four small Auxiliary Telescopes that form part of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) – one of the most powerful and productive ground-based astronomical facilities in existence.
The selection of images below — one per year — gives a taste of the VLT’s scientific productivity since first light in 1998:
Read more on the ESO site here, and watch an ESOCast video below honoring the VLT’s fifteen-year milestone:
This beautiful photo, taken by ESO photo ambassador Babak Tafreshi, shows the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope array and VISTA telescope atop the peaks of the Cerro Paranal in Chile’s Atacama Desert. In the distance the Earth’s shadow extends outward toward the horizon, divided from the bluer daytime sky by the dusky pink “Belt of Venus.”
At an altitude of 2,635 meters (8,645 feet) the Paranal looks down onto a sea of clouds covering the Pacific Ocean, visible at right, whose shores lie 12 km in the distance.