During the late 1970s, scientists made a rather interesting discovery about the gas giants of the Solar System. Thanks to ongoing observations using improved optics, it was revealed that gas giants like Uranus – and not just Saturn – have ring systems about them. The main difference is, these ring systems are not easily visible from a distance using conventional optics and require exceptional timing to see light being reflected off of them.
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to us, at 4.37 light-years (about 25 trillion miles) away. In 2016, astronomers discovered an exoplanet orbiting one of the three stars in the Alpha Centauri system. Spurred on by that discovery, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has developed a new instrument to find any other planets that might be in the Alpha Centauri system, and it’s busy looking right now.
On May 25th, 2019, a strange, double-asteroid (1999 KW4) flew past Earth at a distance and speed that is likely to make a lot of people nervous. As always, there was no danger, since the asteroid passed Earth at a minimum distance of 5.2 million km (3.23 million mi), over 15 times greater than the distance between Earth of the Moon, and its orbit is well-understood by scientists.
Because of this, flyby was the perfect opportunity for the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) to conduct a cross-organizational observing campaign of the asteroid 1999 KW4 as it flew by Earth. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) took part in this campaign and managed to capture some images of the object using the Very Large Telescope (VLT).
2,000 light years away, in the Orion constellation, lurks an eerie looking creature, made of glowing gas lit up by young stars: the Cosmic Bat.
Its real name is NGC 1788. It’s a reflection nebula, meaning the light of nearby stars is strong enough to light it up, but not strong enough to ionize the gas, like in an emission nebula. Even though the stars are young and bright, the Cosmic Bat is still hidden. It took the powerful Very Large Telescope (VLT) to capture this image.
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.
When stars reach the end of their lifespan, many undergo gravitational collapse and explode into a supernova, In some cases, they collapse to become black holes and release a tremendous amount of energy in a short amount of time. These are what is known as gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), and they are one of the most powerful events in the known Universe.
Recently, an international team of astronomers was able to capture an image of a newly-discovered triple star system surrounded by a “pinwheel” of dust. This system, nicknamed “Apep”, is located roughly 8,000 light years from Earth and destined to become a long-duration GRB. In addition, it is the first of its kind to be discovered in our galaxy.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.