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Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered fast-moving wave-like features in the dusty disc around the nearby star AU Microscopii. These odd structures are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now.

The top row shows a Hubble image of the AU Mic disc from 2010, the middle row Hubble from 2011 and the bottom row VLT/SPHERE data from 2014. The black central circles show where the brilliant light of the central star has been blocked off to reveal the much fainter disc, and the position of the star is indicated schematically.

The scale bar at the top of the picture indicates the diameter of the orbit of the planet Neptune in the Solar System (60 AU).

Note that the brightness of the outer parts of the disc has been artificially brightened to reveal the faint structure.

Credit:
ESO, NASA & ESA

Mysterious Ripples Found Racing Through Planet-forming Disc: ESO

Unique structures spotted around nearby star


 

Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered fast-moving wave-like features in the dusty disc around the nearby star AU Microscopii. These odd structures are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now. The top row shows a Hubble image of the AU Mic disc from 2010, the middle row Hubble from 2011 and the bottom row VLT/SPHERE data from 2014. The black central circles show where the brilliant light of the central star has been blocked off to reveal the much fainter disc, and the position of the star is indicated schematically. The scale bar at the top of the picture indicates the diameter of the orbit of the planet Neptune in the Solar System (60 AU). Note that the brightness of the outer parts of the disc has been artificially brightened to reveal the faint structure. Credit: ESO, NASA & ESA
Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered fast-moving wave-like features in the dusty disc around the nearby star AU Microscopii. These odd structures are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now.
The top row shows a Hubble image of the AU Mic disc from 2010, the middle row Hubble from 2011 and the bottom row VLT/SPHERE data from 2014. The black central circles show where the brilliant light of the central star has been blocked off to reveal the much fainter disc, and the position of the star is indicated schematically.
The scale bar at the top of the picture indicates the diameter of the orbit of the planet Neptune in the Solar System (60 AU).
Note that the brightness of the outer parts of the disc has been artificially brightened to reveal the faint structure.
Credit:
ESO, NASA & ESA

Using images from ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered never-before-seen structures within a dusty disc surrounding a nearby star. The fast-moving wave-like features in the disc of the star AU Microscopii are unlike anything ever observed, or even predicted, before now. The origin and nature of these features present a new mystery for astronomers to explore. The results are published in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.

AU Microscopii, or AU Mic for short, is a young, nearby star surrounded by a large disc of dust [1]. Studies of such debris discs can provide valuable clues about how planets, which form from these discs, are created.

Astronomers have been searching AU Mic’s disc for any signs of clumpy or warped features, as such signs might give away the location of possible planets. And in 2014 they used the more powerful high-contrast imaging capabilities of ESO’s newly installed SPHERE instrument, mounted on the Very Large Telescope for their search — and discovered something very unusual.

Our observations have shown something unexpected,” explains Anthony Boccaletti, LESIA (Observatoire de Paris/CNRS/UPMC/Paris-Diderot), France, and lead author on the paper. “The images from SPHERE show a set of unexplained features in the disc which have an arch-like, or wave-like, structure, unlike anything that has ever been observed before.

Five wave-like arches at different distances from the star show up in the new images, reminiscent of ripples in water. After spotting the features in the SPHERE data the team turned to earlier images of the disc taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope in 2010 and 2011 to see whether the features were also visible in these [2]. They were not only able to identify the features on the earlier Hubble images — but they also discovered that they had changed over time. It turns out that these ripples are moving — and very fast!

We reprocessed images from the Hubble data and ended up with enough information to track the movement of these strange features over a four-year period,” explains team member Christian Thalmann (ETH Zürich, Switzerland). “By doing this, we found that the arches are racing away from the star at speeds of up to about 40 000 kilometres/hour!

The features further away from the star seem to be moving faster than those closer to it. At least three of the features are moving so fast that they could well be escaping from the gravitational attraction of the star. Such high speeds rule out the possibility that these are conventional disc features caused by objects — like planets — disturbing material in the disc while orbiting the star. There must have been something else involved to speed up the ripples and make them move so quickly, meaning that they are a sign of something truly unusual [3].

Everything about this find was pretty surprising!” comments co-author Carol Grady of Eureka Scientific, USA. “And because nothing like this has been observed or predicted in theory we can only hypothesise when it comes to what we are seeing and how it came about.

The team cannot say for sure what caused these mysterious ripples around the star. But they have considered and ruled out a series of phenomena as explanations, including the collision of two massive and rare asteroid-like objects releasing large quantities of dust, and spiral waves triggered by instabilities in the system’s gravity.

But other ideas that they have considered look more promising.

One explanation for the strange structure links them to the star’s flares. AU Mic is a star with high flaring activity — it often lets off huge and sudden bursts of energy from on or near its surface,” explains co-author Glenn Schneider of Steward Observatory, USA. “One of these flares could perhaps have triggered something on one of the planets — if there are planets — like a violent stripping of material which could now be propagating through the disc, propelled by the flare’s force.

It is very satisfying that SPHERE has proved to be very capable at studying discs like this in its first year of operation,” adds Jean-Luc Beuzit, who is both a co-author of the new study and also led the development of SPHERE itself.

The team plans to continue to observe the AU Mic system with SPHERE and other facilities, including ALMA, to try to understand what is happening. But, for now, these curious features remain an unsolved mystery.

Notes

[1] AU Microscopii lies just 32 light-years away from Earth. The disc essentially comprises asteroids that have collided with such vigour that they have been ground to dust.

[2] The data were gathered by Hubble’s Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS).

[3] The edge-on view of the disc complicates the interpretation of its three-dimensional structure.

More information

This research was presented in a paper entitled “Fast-Moving Structures in the Debris Disk Around AU Microscopii”, to appear in the journal Nature on 8 October 2015.

Source: ESO

eso1523a

A Celestial Butterfly Emerges from its Dusty Cocoon

eso1523aSPHERE reveals earliest stage of planetary nebula formation


Some of the sharpest images ever made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) have, for the first time, revealed what appears to be an ageing star giving birth to a butterfly-like planetary nebula. These observations of the red giant star L2 Puppis, from the ZIMPOL mode of the newly installed SPHERE instrument, also clearly showed a close companion. The dying stages of stars continue to pose astronomers with many riddles, and the origin of such bipolar nebulae, with their complex and alluring hourglass figures, doubly so. This new imaging mode means that the VLT is currently the sharpest astronomical direct imaging instrument in existence.

At about 200 light-years away, L2 Puppis is one of the closest red giants to Earth known to be entering its final stages of life. The new observations with the ZIMPOL mode of SPHERE were made in visible light using extreme adaptive optics, which corrects images to a much higher degree than standard adaptive optics, allowing faint objects and structures close to bright sources of light to be seen in greater detail. They are the first published results from this mode and the most detailed of such a star.

ZIMPOL can produce images that are three times sharper than those from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, and the new observations show the dust that surrounds L2 Puppis in exquisite detail [1]. They confirm earlier findings, made using NACO, of the dust being arranged in a disc, which from Earth is seen almost completely edge-on, but provide a much more detailed view. The polarisation information from ZIMPOL also allowed the team to construct a three dimensional model of the dust structures [2].

The astronomers found the dust disc to begin about 900 million kilometres from the star — slightly farther than the distance from the Sun to Jupiter — and discovered that it flares outwards, creating a symmetrical, funnel-like shape surrounding the star. The team also observed a second source of light about 300 million kilometres — twice the distance from Earth to the Sun — from L2 Puppis. This very close companion star is likely to be another red giant of slightly lower mass, but less evolved.

The combination of a large amount of dust surrounding a slowly dying star, along with the presence of a companion star, mean that this is exactly the type of system expected to create a bipolar planetary nebula. These three elements seem to be necessary, but a considerable amount of good fortune is also still required if they are to lead to the subsequent emergence of a celestial butterfly from this dusty chrysalis.

Lead author of the paper, Pierre Kervella, explains: “The origin of bipolar planetary nebulae is one of the great classic problems of modern astrophysics, especially the question of how, exactly, stars return their valuable payload of metals back into space — an important process, because it is this material that will be used to produce later generations of planetary systems.”

In addition to L2 Puppis’s flared disc, the team found two cones of material, which rise out perpendicularly to the disc. Importantly, within these cones, they found two long, slowly curving plumes of material. From the origin points of these plumes, the team deduces that one is likely to be the product of the interaction between the material from L2 Puppis and the companions star’s wind and radiation pressure, while the other is likely to have arisen from a collision between the stellar winds from the two stars, or be the result of an accretion disc around the companion star.

Although much is still to be understood, there are two leading theories of bipolar planetary nebulae, both relying on the existence of a binary star system [3]. The new observations suggest that both of these processes are in action around L2 Puppis, making it appear very probable that the pair of stars will, in time, give birth to a butterfly.

Pierre Kervella concludes: “With the companion star orbiting L2 Puppis only every few years, we expect to see how the companion star shapes the red giant’s disc. It will be possible to follow the evolution of the dust features around the star in real time — an extremely rare and exciting prospect.”

Notes
[1] SPHERE/ZIMPOL use extreme adaptive optics to create diffraction-limited images, which come a lot closer than previous adaptive optics instruments to achieving the theoretical limit of the telescope if there were no atmosphere. Extreme adaptive optics also allows much fainter objects to be seen very close to a bright star. These images are also taken in visible light — shorter wavelengths than the near-infrared regime, where most earlier adaptive optics imaging was performed. These two factors result in significantly sharper images than earlier VLT images. Even higher spatial resolution has been achieved with VLTI, but the interferometer does not create images directly.

[2] The dust in the disc was very efficient at scattering the stars’ light towards Earth and polarising it, a feature that the team could use to create a three-dimensional map of the envelope using both ZIMPOL and NACO data and a disc model based on the RADMC-3D radiative transfer modeling tool, which uses a given set of parameters for the dust to simulate photons propagating through it.

[3] The first theory is that the dust produced by the primary, dying star’s stellar wind is confined to a ring-like orbit about the star by the stellar winds and radiation pressure produced by the companion star. Any further mass lost from the main star is then funneled, or collimated, by this disc, forcing the material to move outwards in two opposing columns perpendicular to the disc.

The second holds that most of the material being ejected by the dying star is accreted by its nearby companion, which begins to form an accretion disc and a pair of powerful jets. Any remaining material is pushed away by the dying star’s stellar winds, forming an encompassing cloud of gas and dust, as would normally occur in a single star system. The companion star’s newly created bipolar jets, moving with much greater force than the stellar winds of the dying star, then carve dual cavities through the surrounding dust, resulting in the characteristic appearance of a bipolar planetary nebula.

Source: ESO

The SPHERE instrument is shown shortly after it was installed on ESO’s VLT Unit Telescope 3. The instrument itself is the black box, located on the platform to one side of the telescope.

Credit:
ESO/J. Girard

The Strange Case of the Missing Dwarf

New SPHERE instrument shows its power


The new SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope has been used to search for a brown dwarf expected to be orbiting the unusual double star V471 Tauri. SPHERE has given astronomers the best look so far at the surroundings of this intriguing object and they found — nothing. The surprising absence of this confidently predicted brown dwarf means that the conventional explanation for the odd behaviour of V471 Tauri is wrong. This unexpected result is described in the first science paper based on observations from SPHERE.

Some pairs of stars consist of two normal stars with slightly different masses. When the star of slightly higher mass ages and expands to become a red giant, material is transferred to other star and ends up surrounding both stars in a huge gaseous envelope. When this cloud disperses the two move closer together and form a very tight pair with one white dwarf, and one more normal star [1].

The SPHERE instrument is shown shortly after it was installed on ESO’s VLT Unit Telescope 3. The instrument itself is the black box, located on the platform to one side of the telescope. Credit: ESO/J. Girard
The SPHERE instrument is shown shortly after it was installed on ESO’s VLT Unit Telescope 3. The instrument itself is the black box, located on the platform to one side of the telescope.
Credit:
ESO/J. Girard

One such stellar pair is called V471 Tauri [2]. It is a member of the Hyades star cluster in the constellation of Taurus and is estimated to be around 600 million years old and about 163 light-years from Earth. The two stars are very close and orbit each other every 12 hours. Twice per orbit one star passes in front of the other — which leads to regular changes in the brightness of the pair observed from Earth as they eclipse each other.

A team of astronomers led by Adam Hardy (Universidad Valparaíso, Valparaíso, Chile) first used the ULTRACAM system on ESO’s New Technology Telescope to measure these brightness changes very precisely. The times of the eclipses were measured with an accuracy of better than two seconds — a big improvement on earlier measurements.

The eclipse timings were not regular, but could be explained well by assuming that there was a brown dwarf orbiting both stars whose gravitational pull was disturbing the orbits of the stars. They also found hints that there might be a second small companion object.

Up to now however, it has been impossible to actually image a faint brown dwarf so close to much brighter stars. But the power of the newly installed SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope allowed the team to look for the first time exactly where the brown dwarf companion was expected to be. But they saw nothing, even though the very high quality images from SPHERE should have easily revealed it [3].

There are many papers suggesting the existence of such circumbinary objects, but the results here provide damaging evidence against this hypothesis,” remarks Adam Hardy.

If there is no orbiting object then what is causing the odd changes to the orbit of the binary? Several theories have been proposed, and, while some of these have already been ruled out, it is possible that the effects are caused by magnetic field variations in the larger of the two stars [4], somewhat similar to the smaller changes seen in the Sun.

A study such as this has been necessary for many years, but has only become possible with the advent of powerful new instruments such as SPHERE. This is how science works: observations with new technology can either confirm, or as in this case disprove, earlier ideas. This is an excellent way to start the observational life of this amazing instrument,” concludes Adam Hardy.

Notes

[1] Such pairs are known as post-common-envelope binaries.

[2] This name means that the object is the 471st variable star (or as closer analysis shows, pair of stars) to be identified in the constellation of Taurus.

[3] The SPHERE images are so accurate that they would have been able to reveal a companion such as a brown dwarf that is 70 000 times fainter than the central star, and only 0.26 arcseconds away from it. The expected brown dwarf companion in this case was predicted to be much brighter.

[4] This effect is called the Applegate mechanism and results in regular changes in the shape of the star, which can lead to changes in the apparent brightness of the double star seen from Earth.

Soure : ESO