Located high in the mountains of Chile’s Atacama Desert, the enormous telescopes of the European Southern Observatory have been providing astronomers with unprecedented views of the night sky for 50 years. ESO’s suite of telescopes take advantage of the cold, clear air over the Atacama, which is one of the driest places on Earth. But as clear as it is, there is still some turbulence and variations to contend with — especially when peering billions of light-years out into the Universe.
So how do they do it?
Thanks to adaptive optics and advanced laser calibration, ESO can negate the effects of atmospheric turbulence, bringing the distant Universe into focus. It’s an impressive orchestration of innovation and engineering and the ESO team has put together a video to show us how it’s done.
We all love the images (and the science) so here’s a look behind the scenes!
Got a teenager? Then you know the story. Go to look for your favorite bag of chips and they’re gone. You eat one portion of meat and they need three. If you like those cookies, then you better have a darn good place to stash them. And, while you’re at it, their car needs gas. Apparently there’s a reason for the word “universal”, because teenage galaxies aren’t much different. Thanks to some new studies done by ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers have been able to take a much closer look at adolescent galaxies and their “feeding habits” during their evolution. Some 3 to 5 billion years after the Big Bang they were happiest when just provided with gas, but later on they developed a voracious appetite… for smaller galaxies!
Scientists have long been aware that early galaxy structures were much smaller than the grand spirals and hefty ellipticals which fill the present Universe. However, figuring out exactly how galaxies put on weight – and where the bulk supply comes from – has remained an enigma. Now an international group of astronomers have taken on more than a hundred hours of observations taken with the VLT to help determine how gas-rich galaxies developed.
“Two different ways of growing galaxies are competing: violent merging events when larger galaxies eat smaller ones, or a smoother and continuous flow of gas onto galaxies.” explains team leader, Thierry Contini (IRAP, Toulouse, France). “Both can lead to lots of new stars being created.”
The undertaking is is MASSIV – the Mass Assembly Survey with the VIsible imaging Multi-Object Spectrograph, a powerful camera and spectrograph on the VLT. It’s incredible equipment used to measure distance and properties of the surveyed galaxies Not only did the survey observe in the near infrared, but also employed a integral field spectrograph and adaptive optics to refine the images. This enables astronomers to map inner galaxy movements and content, as well as leaving room for some very surprising results.
“For me, the biggest surprise was the discovery of many galaxies with no rotation of their gas. Such galaxies are not observed in the nearby Universe. None of the current theories predict these objects,” says Benoît Epinat, another member of the team.
“We also didn’t expect that so many of the young galaxies in the survey would have heavier elements concentrated in their outer parts — this is the exact opposite of what we see in galaxies today,” adds Thierry Contini.
These results point towards a major change during the galactic “teenage years”. At some time during the young Universe state, smooth gas flow was a considerable building block – but mergers would later play a more important role.
“To understand how galaxies grew and evolved we need to look at them in the greatest possible detail. The SINFONI instrument on ESO’s VLT is one of the most powerful tools in the world to dissect young and distant galaxies. It plays the same role that a microscope does for a biologist,” adds Thierry Contini.
The team plans on continuing to study these galaxies with future instruments on the VLT as well as using ALMA to study the cold gas in these galaxies. However, their work with gas isn’t the only “station” on the block. In a separate study led by Kate Rubin (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy), the Keck I telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, has been used to examine gas associated with a hundred galaxies at distances between 5 and 8 billion light-years – the older teens. They have found initial evidence of gas flowing back into distant galaxies that are actively forming new stars.
Apparently, like a teenager with the munchies, matter finds its way into those galactic tummies. One feeding theory is an inflow from huge low-density gas reservoirs filling the intergalactic voids… another is huge cosmic matter cycle. While there is very little evidence to support either hypothesis, gases have been observed to flow away from some galaxies and may be moshed around by several different sources – such as supernovae events or peer pressure from gigantic stars.
“As this gas drifts away, it is pulled back by the galaxy’s gravity, and could re-enter the same galaxy in time scales of one to several billion years. This process might solve the mystery: the gas we find inside galaxies may only be about half of the raw material that ends up as fuel for star formation.” says Dr. Rubin. “Large amounts of gas are caught in transit, but will re-enter the galaxy in due time. Add up the galaxy’s gas and the gas currently undergoing cosmic recycling, and there is a sufficient amount of raw matter to account for the observed rates of star formation.”
It might very well be a case of cosmic recycling… but I’d feel safer hiding my cookies.
British synthpop band Erasure released a video today featuring lead singer Andy Bell in front of the telescopes of ESO’s Paranal Observatory, located high in the mountains of Chile’s Atacama Desert. The new single “Fill Us With Fire” honors ESO’s 50th anniversary this year. Watch the full video below!
The video features the Very Large Telescope as well as some of ESO’s stunning images of the night sky. This is the third single to be released from their 2011 album Tomorrow’s World.
Andy spent one day at Paranal in February 2012, during which time footage was shot of him singing Erasure’s latest single. The footage was edited with some of ESO’s best astronomical images. Andy, thrilled with the result, decided to dedicate it to ESO’s 50th Anniversary and make it the exclusive video for the single.
Standing on a 20-foot-high platform in front of the VLT, Andy didn’t have a lot of room to move around during the shooting of the video. Say what you will about the choreography, I think it’s awesome to see the observatory and some of its amazing images featured in a new music video!
Personally, I would have wanted to be standing on top of one of the telescope domes but I’m not sure if that’s allowed.
Credit: Erasure/ESO (S. Lowery)
Directed by: Simon Lowery
Editing: Simon Lowery, Lars Lindberg Christensen & Patrick Geeraert
Music: Erasure/Andy Bell
Footage and photos: ESO, Guillaume Blanchard & Simon Lowery
It may seem like a silly question — of course there’s life on Earth — but what if we didn’t know that? What if we were looking at Earth from another vantage point, from another planet in another star system, perhaps? Would we be able to discern then if Earth were in fact teeming with life? All we’d have to go on would be the tiniest bit of light reflected off Earth, nearly lost in the intense glare of the Sun.
Researchers have found that the secret is knowing what kind of light to look for. And they discovered this with a little help from the Moon.
By using Earthshine — sunlight light reflected off Earth onto the Moon — astronomers with the European Southern Observatory have been able to discern variations that correlate with identifying factors of our planet as being a happy home for life.
In observations made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the presence of oceans, clouds, atmospheric gases and even plants could be detected in the reflected Earthshine.
The breakthrough method was the use of spectropolarimetry, which measures polarized light reflected from Earth. Like polarized sunglasses are able to filter out reflected glare to allow you to see clearer, spectropolarimetry can focus on light reflected off a planet, allowing scientists to more clearly identify important biological signatures.
“The light from a distant exoplanet is overwhelmed by the glare of the host star, so it’s very difficult to analyze — a bit like trying to study a grain of dust beside a powerful light bulb,” said Stefano Bagnulo of the Armagh Observatory, Northern Ireland, and co-author of the study. “But the light reflected by a planet is polarized, while the light from the host star is not. So polarimetric techniques help us to pick out the faint reflected light of an exoplanet from the dazzling starlight.”
Since we have fairly reliable proof that life does in fact exist on Earth, this provides astronomers with a process and a benchmark for locating evidence of life on other distant worlds — life as we know it, anyway.
Main image credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi/TWAN (twanight.org). This research was presented in a paper, “Biosignatures as revealed by spectropolarimetry of Earthshine”, by M. Sterzik et al. to appear in the journal Nature on 1st March 2012. The team is composed of Michael F. Sterzik (ESO, Chile), Stefano Bagnulo (Armagh Observatory, Northern Ireland, UK) and Enric Palle (Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, Tenerife, Spain).
Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a star named VFTS 102 is spinning its heart out… Literally. Rotating at a mind-numbing speed of a million miles per hour (1.6 million kph), this hot blue giant has reached the edge where centrifugal forces could tear it apart. It’s the fastest ever recorded – 300 times faster than our Sun – and may have been split off from a double star system during a violent explosion.
Thanks to ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, an international team of astronomers studying the heaviest and brightest stars in the Tarantula Nebula made quite a discovery – a huge blue star 25 times the mass of the Sun and about one hundred thousand times brighter was cruising through space at a speed which drew their attention.
“The remarkable rotation speed and the unusual motion compared to the surrounding stars led us to wonder if this star had an unusual early life. We were suspicious.” explains Philip Dufton (Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK), lead author of the paper presenting the results.
What they’ve discovered could possibly be a “runaway star” – one that began life as a binary, but may have been ejected during a supernova event. Further evidence which supports their theory also exists: the presence of a pulsar and a supernova remnant nearby. But what made this crazy star spin so fast? It’s possible that if the two stars were very close that streaming gases could have started the incredible rotation. Then the more massive of the pair blew its stack – expelling the star into space. So what would be left? It’s elementary, Watson… A supernova remnant, a pulsar and a runaway!
Even though this is a rather tidy conclusion, there’s always room for doubt. As Dufton concludes, “This is a compelling story because it explains each of the unusual features that we’ve seen. This star is certainly showing us unexpected sides of the short but dramatic lives of the heaviest stars.”
The seasons are changing for both hemispheres and it’s not uncommon to wake up to wonderful, mysterious swirls of fog. What we experience here on Earth is water vapor, but the Universe was once filled with a fog of hydrogen gas. As the hours progress, the Sun slowly burns it off – quietly revealing trees, houses and the road ahead. In time after expansion began, the electrically neutral hydrogen gas was slowly swept away by the light of ultraviolet radiation from early galaxies…
Using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) like a “time machine”, a team of astronomers cut through the cosmic cloud layer to view some of the most distant galaxies recorded so far – a look back between 780 million and a billion years after the Big Bang. These antediluvian galaxies excited the gas, making it electrically charged (ionised), it gradually became transparent to ultraviolet light. While you may argue this process is technically known as reionization, there is theorized to be a brief timeline when hydrogen was also ionised.
“Archaeologists can reconstruct a timeline of the past from the artifacts they find in different layers of soil. Astronomers can go one better: we can look directly into the remote past and observe the faint light from different galaxies at different stages in cosmic evolution,” explains Adriano Fontana, of INAF Rome Astronomical Observatory who led this project. “The differences between the galaxies tell us about the changing conditions in the Universe over this important period, and how quickly these changes were occurring.”
As we know from spectroscopy, each element has its own signature – the emission lines – and the strongest in ultraviolet is the Lyman-alpha line generated from hydrogen. This bold spectral signature is easily recognizable – even at a vast distance. By observing the Lyman-alpha line for five very remote galaxies, the team was able to establish two critical factors: their distance through redshift and how soon they could be detected. Through this process, the astronomers were then able to establish how much the Lyman-alpha emission was reabsorbed by the neutral hydrogen fog and create a timeline… A whole lot like recording what minute each landmark reappears when terrestrial fog clears and seeing the long road ahead.
“We see a dramatic difference in the amount of ultraviolet light that was blocked between the earliest and latest galaxies in our sample,” says lead author Laura Pentericci of INAF Rome Astronomical Observatory. “When the Universe was only 780 million years old this neutral hydrogen was quite abundant, filling from 10 to 50% of the Universe’ volume. But only 200 million years later the amount of neutral hydrogen had dropped to a very low level, similar to what we see today. It seems that reionization must have happened quicker than astronomers previously thought.”
As always, there’s a bit more to the story. In this case, by understanding the rate at which the ancient absorbent obstruction began fading, scientists could also deduce the source of the powerful ultraviolet radiation. Could it be first generation stars – or even the work of primeval black holes?
“The detailed analysis of the faint light from two of the most distant galaxies we found suggests that the very first generation of stars may have contributed to the energy output observed,” says Eros Vanzella of the INAF Trieste Observatory, a member of the research team. “These would have been very young and massive stars, about five thousand times younger and one hundred times more massive than the Sun, and they may have been able to dissolve the primordial fog and make it transparent.”
To prove anything, it’s going to take a lot more research and some very accurate measurements – ones that are already in the planning stage for the future ESO European Extremely Large Telescope. But, in the meantime, the team used the great light-gathering power of the 8.2-metre VLT to carry out spectroscopic observations, targeting galaxies first identified by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope and in deep images from the VLT.
Using two of the world’s largest optical-infrared telescopes, the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, an international team of astronomers has discovered more than two dozen brown dwarf stars floating around in two galactic clusters. During the Substellar Objects in Nearby Young Clusters (SONYC) survey, these “failed stars” came to their attention by showing up in extremely deep images of the NGC 1333 and rho Ophiuchi star clusters at both optical and infrared wavelengths. To make the findings even more exciting, these stellar curiosities outnumbered the “normal” stars in one cluster!
“Our findings suggest once again that objects not much bigger than Jupiter could form the same way as stars do. In other words, nature appears to have more than one trick up its sleeve for producing planetary mass objects,” says Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and leader of the international team. Their discovery will be published in two upcoming papers in the Astrophysical Journal and will be presented this week at a scientific conference in Garching, Germany.
Using spectroscopy, the researchers were able to separate candidate brown dwarfs by their red color. But there’s more to the story than just hues. In this case, it’s the identification of one that’s only about six times more massive than Jupiter. Located in NGC 1333, it is the smallest known free-floating object to date. What does that mean? “Its mass is comparable to those of giant planets, yet it doesn’t circle a star. How it formed is a mystery,” said Aleks Scholz of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland, lead author of the first paper.
Brown dwarfs are indeed unusual. They walk a fine line between planet and star – and may have once been in stellar orbit, only to be ejected at some point in time. But in this circumstance, all of the brown dwarfs found in this particular cluster have very low mass – only about twenty times that of Jupiter. “Brown dwarfs seem to be more common in NGC 1333 than in other young star clusters. That difference may be hinting at how different environmental conditions affect their formation,” said Koraljka Muzic of the University of Toronto in Canada, lead author of the second paper.
“We could not have made these exciting discoveries if not for the remarkable capabilities of Subaru and the VLT. Instruments that can image large patches of the sky and take hundreds of spectra at once are key to our success,” said Motohide Tamura of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
Free-range brown dwarfs? I’ll take mine over easy…
First seen by amateur astronomers back in December, the powerful seasonal storm that has since bloomed into a planet-wrapping swath of churning clouds has gotten some scrutiny by Cassini and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope array situated high in the Chilean desert.
The image above shows three views of Saturn acquired on January 19: one by amateur astronomer Trevor Barry taken in visible light and the next two by the VLT’s infrared VISIR instrument – one taken in wavelengths sensitive to lower atmospheric structures one sensitive to higher-altitude features.
While the storm band can be clearly distinguished in the visible-light image, it’s the infrared images that really intrigue scientists. Bright areas can be seen along the path of the storm, especially in the higher-altitude image, marking large areas of upwelling warmer air that have risen from deep within Saturn’s atmosphere.
Normally relatively stable, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits powerful storms like this only when moving into its warmer summer season about every 29 years. This is only the sixth such storm documented since 1876, and the first to be studied both in thermal infrared and by orbiting spacecraft.
The initial vortex of the storm was about 5,000 km (3,000 miles) wide and took researchers and astronomers by surprise with its strength, size and scale.
“This disturbance in the northern hemisphere of Saturn has created a gigantic, violent and complex eruption of bright cloud material, which has spread to encircle the entire planet… nothing on Earth comes close to this powerful storm.”
– Leigh Fletcher, lead author and Cassini team scientist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
The origins of Saturn’s storm may be similar to those of a thunderstorm here on Earth; warm, moist air rises into the cooler atmosphere as a convective plume, generating thick clouds and turbulent winds. On Saturn this mass of warmer air punched through the stratosphere, interacting with the circulating winds and creating temperature variations that further affect atmospheric movement.
The temperature variations show up in the infrared images as bright “stratospheric beacons”. Such features have never been seen before, so researchers are not yet sure if they are commonly found in these kinds of seasonal storms.
“We were lucky to have an observing run scheduled for early in 2011, which ESO allowed us to bring forward so that we could observe the storm as soon as possible. It was another stroke of luck that Cassini’s CIRS instrument could also observe the storm at the same time, so we had imaging from VLT and spectroscopy of Cassini to compare. We are continuing to observe this once-in-a-generation event.”
– Leigh Fletcher
A separate analysis using Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer confirmed the storm is very violent, dredging up larger atmospheric particles and churning up ammonia from deep in the atmosphere. Other Cassini scientists are studying the evolving storm and a more extensive picture will emerge soon.
Read the NASA article here, or the news release from ESO here.
The Chilean Atacama Desert boasts some of the darkest skies on Earth – which is why it is home to several telescopes, including the Very Large Telescope. This beautiful panoramic image was taken there, showing the VLT’s Unit Telescope 1, and across on the other side of the image are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds glowing brightly. Like an arch in between is plane of our Milky Way galaxy. This awe-inspiring image was taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Yuri Beletsky. These photographers specialize in taking images of not only the night sky, but also the large telescopes that give us eyes to see across the great distances of our Universe.
Can galaxy NGC 157 leap tall buildings in a single bound, stop a speeding bullet or bend steel in it’s bare hands? This relatively mild-mannered galaxy has a central sweep of stars that resembles a giant “S”, almost just like the comic book hero Superman’s symbol. The image was taken by the HAWK-I (High-Acuity Wide-field K-band Imager) on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. HAWK-I looks in infrared light, allowing us to peer through the gas and dust that normally obscures our view and see parts of NCG 157 that otherwise is hidden from our optical view.
Looking at this and other galaxies like it, astronomers can learn about star formation, as the same processes that are coalescing material and creating stars in NGC 157 also took place around 4.5 billion years ago in the Milky Way to form our own star, the Sun.
NGC 157 is faint — about magnitude 11, but can be seen bigger amateur telescopes. It is located within the constellation of Cetus (the Sea Monster).
For those interested in observing this object, see this post on WikiSky.
And just in case you don’t get the Superman references: