Tag Archives: star

NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

“This discovery could be a significant piece in the puzzle of finding habitable environments, places that are conducive to life,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Answering the question ‘are we alone’ is a top science priority and finding so many planets like these for the first time in the habitable zone is a remarkable step forward toward that goal.”

At about 40 light-years (235 trillion miles) from Earth, the system of planets is relatively close to us, in the constellation Aquarius. Because they are located outside of our solar system, these planets are scientifically known as exoplanets.

This exoplanet system is called TRAPPIST-1, named for The Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope (TRAPPIST) in Chile. In May 2016, researchers using TRAPPIST announced they had discovered three planets in the system. Assisted by several ground-based telescopes, including the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, Spitzer confirmed the existence of two of these planets and discovered five additional ones, increasing the number of known planets in the system to seven.

The new results were published Wednesday in the journal Nature, and announced at a news briefing at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Using Spitzer data, the team precisely measured the sizes of the seven planets and developed first estimates of the masses of six of them, allowing their density to be estimated.

Based on their densities, all of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are likely to be rocky. Further observations will not only help determine whether they are rich in water, but also possibly reveal whether any could have liquid water on their surfaces. The mass of the seventh and farthest exoplanet has not yet been estimated – scientists believe it could be an icy, “snowball-like” world, but further observations are needed.

“The seven wonders of TRAPPIST-1 are the first Earth-size planets that have been found orbiting this kind of star,” said Michael Gillon, lead author of the paper and the principal investigator of the TRAPPIST exoplanet survey at the University of Liege, Belgium. “It is also the best target yet for studying the atmospheres of potentially habitable, Earth-size worlds.”

In contrast to our sun, the TRAPPIST-1 star – classified as an ultra-cool dwarf – is so cool that liquid water could survive on planets orbiting very close to it, closer than is possible on planets in our solar system. All seven of the TRAPPIST-1 planetary orbits are closer to their host star than Mercury is to our sun. The planets also are very close to each other. If a person was standing on one of the planet’s surface, they could gaze up and potentially see geological features or clouds of neighboring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky.

The planets may also be tidally locked to their star, which means the same side of the planet is always facing the star, therefore each side is either perpetual day or night. This could mean they have weather patterns totally unlike those on Earth, such as strong winds blowing from the day side to the night side, and extreme temperature changes.

Spitzer, an infrared telescope that trails Earth as it orbits the sun, was well-suited for studying TRAPPIST-1 because the star glows brightest in infrared light, whose wavelengths are longer than the eye can see. In the fall of 2016, Spitzer observed TRAPPIST-1 nearly continuously for 500 hours. Spitzer is uniquely positioned in its orbit to observe enough crossing – transits – of the planets in front of the host star to reveal the complex architecture of the system. Engineers optimized Spitzer’s ability to observe transiting planets during Spitzer’s “warm mission,” which began after the spacecraft’s coolant ran out as planned after the first five years of operations.

“This is the most exciting result I have seen in the 14 years of Spitzer operations,” said Sean Carey, manager of NASA’s Spitzer Science Center at Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California. “Spitzer will follow up in the fall to further refine our understanding of these planets so that the James Webb Space Telescope can follow up. More observations of the system are sure to reveal more secrets.”

Following up on the Spitzer discovery, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has initiated the screening of four of the planets, including the three inside the habitable zone. These observations aim at assessing the presence of puffy, hydrogen-dominated atmospheres, typical for gaseous worlds like Neptune, around these planets.

In May 2016, the Hubble team observed the two innermost planets, and found no evidence for such puffy atmospheres. This strengthened the case that the planets closest to the star are rocky in nature.

“The TRAPPIST-1 system provides one of the best opportunities in the next decade to study the atmospheres around Earth-size planets,” said Nikole Lewis, co-leader of the Hubble study and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler space telescope also is studying the TRAPPIST-1 system, making measurements of the star’s minuscule changes in brightness due to transiting planets. Operating as the K2 mission, the spacecraft’s observations will allow astronomers to refine the properties of the known planets, as well as search for additional planets in the system. The K2 observations conclude in early March and will be made available on the public archive.

Spitzer, Hubble, and Kepler will help astronomers plan for follow-up studies using NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, launching in 2018. With much greater sensitivity, Webb will be able to detect the chemical fingerprints of water, methane, oxygen, ozone, and other components of a planet’s atmosphere. Webb also will analyze planets’ temperatures and surface pressures – key factors in assessing their habitability.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center, at Caltech, in Pasadena, California. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at Caltech/IPAC. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

For more information about Spitzer, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/spitzer

For more information on the TRAPPIST-1 system, visit:

https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/trappist1

For more information on exoplanets, visit:

https://www.nasa.gov/exoplanets

Credits
Source: NASA Solar SystemFelicia Chou / Sean Potter
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1536
felicia.chou@nasa.gov / sean.potter@nasa.gov

Elizabeth Landau
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-6425
elizabeth.landau@jpl.nasa.gov

This artist’s impression shows how an asteroid torn apart by the strong gravity of a white dwarf has formed a ring of dust particles and debris orbiting the Earth-sized burnt out stellar core  SDSS J1228+1040. Gas produced by collisions within the disc is detected in observations obtained over twelve years with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and reveal a narrow glowing arc.

Credit:
Mark Garlick (www.markgarlick.com) and University of Warwick/ESO

VLT maps out remains of white dwarf’s meal

The Glowing Halo of a Zombie Star

VLT maps out remains of white dwarf’s meal


This artist’s impression shows how an asteroid torn apart by the strong gravity of a white dwarf has formed a ring of dust particles and debris orbiting the Earth-sized burnt out stellar core  SDSS J1228+1040. Gas produced by collisions within the disc is detected in observations obtained over twelve years with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and reveal a narrow glowing arc. Credit: Mark Garlick (www.markgarlick.com) and University of Warwick/ESO
This artist’s impression shows how an asteroid torn apart by the strong gravity of a white dwarf has formed a ring of dust particles and debris orbiting the Earth-sized burnt out stellar core SDSS J1228+1040. Gas produced by collisions within the disc is detected in observations obtained over twelve years with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, and reveal a narrow glowing arc.
Credit:
Mark Garlick (www.markgarlick.com) and University of Warwick/ESO

The remains of a fatal interaction between a dead star and its asteroid supper have been studied in detail for the first time by an international team of astronomers using the Very Large Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. This gives a glimpse of the far-future fate of the Solar System.

Led by Christopher Manser, a PhD student at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, the team used data from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and other observatories to study the shattered remains of an asteroid around a stellar remnant — a white dwarf called SDSS J1228+1040 [1].

Using several instruments, including the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) and X-shooter, both attached to the VLT, the team obtained detailed observations of the light coming from the white dwarf and its surrounding material over an unprecedented period of twelve years between 2003 and 2015. Observations over periods of years were needed to probe the system from multiple viewpoints [2].

“The image we get from the processed data shows us that these systems are truly disc-like, and reveals many structures that we cannot detect in a single snapshot,” explained lead author Christopher Manser.

The team used a technique called Doppler tomography — similar in principle to medical tomographic scans of the human body — which allowed them to map out in detail the structure of the glowing gaseous remains of the dead star’s meal orbiting J1228+1040 for the first time.

While large stars — those more massive than around ten times the mass of the Sun — suffer a spectacularly violent climax as a supernova explosion at the ends of their lives, smaller stars are spared such dramatic fates. When stars like the Sun come to the ends of their lives they exhaust their fuel, expand as red giants and later expel their outer layers into space. The hot and very dense core of the former star — a white dwarf — is all that remains.

But would the planets, asteroids and other bodies in such a system survive this trial by fire? What would be left? The new observations help to answer these questions.

It is rare for white dwarfs to be surrounded by orbiting discs of gaseous material — only seven have ever been found. The team concluded that an asteroid had strayed dangerously close to the dead star and been ripped apart by the immense tidal forces it experienced to form the disc of material that is now visible.

The orbiting disc was formed in similar ways to the photogenic rings seen around planets closer to home, such as Saturn. However, while J1228+1040 is more than seven times smaller in diameter than the ringed planet, it has a mass over 2500 times greater. The team learned that the distance between the white dwarf and its disc is also quite different — Saturn and its rings could comfortably sit in the gap between them [3].

The new long-term study with the VLT has now allowed the team to watch the disc precess under the influence of the very strong gravitational field of the white dwarf. They also find that the disc is somewhat lopsided and has not yet become circular.

“When we discovered this debris disc orbiting the white dwarf back in 2006, we could not have imagined the exquisite details that are now visible in this image, constructed from twelve years of data — it was definitely worth the wait,” added Boris Gänsicke, a co-author of the study.

Remnants such as J1228+1040 can provide key clues to understanding the environments that exist as stars reach the ends of their lives. This can help astronomers to understand the processes that occur in exoplanetary systems and even forecast the fate of the Solar System when the Sun meets its demise in about seven billion years.

Notes
[1] The white dwarf’s full designation is SDSS J122859.93+104032.9.

[2] The team identified the unmistakable trident-like spectral signature from ionised calcium, called the calcium (Ca II) triplet. The difference between the observed and known wavelengths of these three lines can determine the velocity of the gas with considerable precision.

[3] Although the disc around this white dwarf is much bigger than Saturn’s ring system in the Solar System, it is tiny compared to the debris discs that form planets around young stars.

Source:ESO

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

The system Kepler-444 formed when the Milky Way galaxy was a youthful two billion years old. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist's conception.

Image courtesy of NASA

Circular orbits identified for 74 small exoplanets

Observations of 74 Earth-sized planets around distant stars may narrow field of habitable candidates.

By Jennifer Chu


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Viewed from above, our solar system’s planetary orbits around the sun resemble rings around a bulls-eye. Each planet, including Earth, keeps to a roughly circular path, always maintaining the same distance from the sun.

The system Kepler-444 formed when the Milky Way galaxy was a youthful two billion years old. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist's conception. Image courtesy of NASA
The system Kepler-444 formed when the Milky Way galaxy was a youthful two billion years old. The planets were detected from the dimming that occurs when they transit the disc of their parent star, as shown in this artist’s conception.
Image courtesy of NASA

For decades, astronomers have wondered whether the solar system’s circular orbits might be a rarity in our universe. Now a new analysis suggests that such orbital regularity is instead the norm, at least for systems with planets as small as Earth.

In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers from MIT and Aarhus University in Denmark report that 74 exoplanets, located hundreds of light-years away, orbit their respective stars in circular patterns, much like the planets of our solar system.

These 74 exoplanets, which orbit 28 stars, are about the size of Earth, and their circular trajectories stand in stark contrast to those of more massive exoplanets, some of which come extremely close to their stars before hurtling far out in highly eccentric, elongated orbits.

“Twenty years ago, we only knew about our solar system, and everything was circular and so everyone expected circular orbits everywhere,” says Vincent Van Eylen, a visiting graduate student in MIT’s Department of Physics. “Then we started finding giant exoplanets, and we found suddenly a whole range of eccentricities, so there was an open question about whether this would also hold for smaller planets. We find that for small planets, circular is probably the norm.”

Ultimately, Van Eylen says that’s good news in the search for life elsewhere. Among other requirements, for a planet to be habitable, it would have to be about the size of Earth — small and compact enough to be made of rock, not gas. If a small planet also maintained a circular orbit, it would be even more hospitable to life, as it would support a stable climate year-round. (In contrast, a planet with a more eccentric orbit might experience dramatic swings in climate as it orbited close in, then far out from its star.)

“If eccentric orbits are common for habitable planets, that would be quite a worry for life, because they would have such a large range of climate properties,” Van Eylen says. “But what we find is, probably we don’t have to worry too much because circular cases are fairly common.”

Star-crossed numbers

In the past, researchers have calculated the orbital eccentricities of large, “gas giant” exoplanets using radial velocity — a technique that measures a star’s movement. As a planet orbits a star, its gravitational force will tug on the star, causing it to move in a pattern that reflects the planet’s orbit. However, the technique is most successful for larger planets, as they exert enough gravitational pull to influence their stars.

Researchers commonly find smaller planets by using a transit-detecting method, in which they study the light given off by a star, in search of dips in starlight that signify when a planet crosses, or “transits,” in front of that star, momentarily diminishing its light. Ordinarily, this method only illuminates a planet’s existence, not its orbit. But Van Eylen and his colleague Simon Albrecht, of Aarhus University, devised a way to glean orbital information from stellar transit data.

They first reasoned that if they knew the mass and radius of a planet’s star, they could calculate how long a planet would take to orbit that star, if its orbit were circular. The mass and radius of a star determines its gravitational pull, which in turn influences how fast a planet travels around the star.

By calculating a planet’s orbital velocity in a circular orbit, they could then estimate a transit’s duration — how long a planet would take to cross in front of a star. If the calculated transit matched an actual transit, the researchers reasoned that the planet’s orbit must be circular. If the transit were longer or shorter, the orbit must be more elongated, or eccentric.

Not so eccentric

To obtain actual transit data, the team looked through data collected over the past four years by NASA’s Kepler telescope — a space observatory that surveys a slice of the sky in search of habitable planets. The telescope has monitored the brightness of over 145,000 stars, only a fraction of which have been characterized in any detail.

The team chose to concentrate on 28 stars for which mass and radius have previously been measured, using asteroseismology — a technique that measures stellar pulsations, which reflect a star’s mass and radius.

These 28 stars host multiplanet systems — 74 exoplanets in all. The researchers obtained Kepler data for each exoplanet, looking not only for the occurrence of transits, but also their duration. Given the mass and radius of the host stars, the team calculated each planet’s transit duration if its orbit were circular, then compared the estimated transit durations with actual transit durations from Kepler data.

Across the board, Van Eylen and Albrecht found the calculated and actual transit durations matched, suggesting that all 74 exoplanets maintain circular, not eccentric, orbits.

“We found that most of them matched pretty closely, which means they’re pretty close to being circular,” Van Eylen says. “We are very certain that if very high eccentricities were common, we would’ve seen that, which we don’t.”

Van Eylen says the orbital results for these smaller planets may eventually help to explain why larger planets have more extreme orbits.

“We want to understand why some exoplanets have extremely eccentric orbits, while in other cases, such as the solar system, planets orbit mostly circularly,” Van Eylen says. “This is one of the first times we’ve reliably measured the eccentricities of small planets, and it’s exciting to see they are different from the giant planets, but similar to the solar system.”

This research was funded in part by the European Research Council.

 

Related links

ARCHIVE: New technique allows analysis of clouds around exoplanets
http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2015/clouds-around-exoplanets-0303

ARCHIVE: New technique measures mass of exoplanets
http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2013/new-technique-measures-mass-of-exoplanets-1219

ARCHIVE: Researchers discover that an exoplanet is Earth-like in mass and size
http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2013/kepler-78b-earth-like-in-mass-and-size-1030

 

Source: MIT News Office

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

First Exoplanet Visible Light Spectrum

New technique paints promising picture for future


Astronomers using the HARPS planet-hunting machine at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile have made the first-ever direct detection of the spectrum of visible light reflected off an exoplanet. These observations also revealed new properties of this famous object, the first exoplanet ever discovered around a normal star: 51 Pegasi b. The result promises an exciting future for this technique, particularly with the advent of next generation instruments, such as ESPRESSO, on the VLT, and future telescopes, such as the E-ELT.

The exoplanet 51 Pegasi b [1] lies some 50 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus. It was discovered in 1995 and will forever be remembered as the first confirmed exoplanet to be found orbiting an ordinary star like the Sun [2]. It is also regarded as the archetypal hot Jupiter — a class of planets now known to be relatively commonplace, which are similar in size and mass to Jupiter, but orbit much closer to their parent stars.

Since that landmark discovery, more than 1900 exoplanets in 1200 planetary systems have been confirmed, but, in the year of the twentieth anniversary of its discovery, 51 Pegasi b returns to the ring once more to provide another advance in exoplanet studies.

The team that made this new detection was led by Jorge Martins from the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço (IA) and the Universidade do Porto, Portugal, who is currently a PhD student at ESO in Chile. They used the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse).  In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
This image shows the sky around the star 51 Pegasi in the northern constellation of Pegasus (The Winged Horse). In 1995 the first exoplanet to be discovered was detected orbiting this star. Twenty years later this object was also the first exoplanet to be be directly detected spectroscopically in visible light. This image was created from photographic material forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2.
Credit:
ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Currently, the most widely used method to examine an exoplanet’s atmosphere is to observe the host star’s spectrum as it is filtered through the planet’s atmosphere during transit — a technique known as transmission spectroscopy. An alternative approach is to observe the system when the star passes in front of the planet, which primarily provides information about the exoplanet’s temperature.

The new technique does not depend on finding a planetary transit, and so can potentially be used to study many more exoplanets. It allows the planetary spectrum to be directly detected in visible light, which means that different characteristics of the planet that are inaccessible to other techniques can be inferred.

The host star’s spectrum is used as a template to guide a search for a similar signature of light that is expected to be reflected off the planet as it describes its orbit. This is an exceedingly difficult task as planets are incredibly dim in comparison to their dazzling parent stars.

The signal from the planet is also easily swamped by other tiny effects and sources of noise [3]. In the face of such adversity, the success of the technique when applied to the HARPS data collected on 51 Pegasi b provides an extremely valuable proof of concept.

Jorge Martins explains: “This type of detection technique is of great scientific importance, as it allows us to measure the planet’s real mass and orbital inclination, which is essential to more fully understand the system. It also allows us to estimate the planet’s reflectivity, or albedo, which can be used to infer the composition of both the planet’s surface and atmosphere.”

51 Pegasi b was found to have a mass about half that of Jupiter’s and an orbit with an inclination of about nine degrees to the direction to the Earth [4]. The planet also seems to be larger than Jupiter in diameter and to be highly reflective. These are typical properties for a hot Jupiter that is very close to its parent star and exposed to intense starlight.

HARPS was essential to the team’s work, but the fact that the result was obtained using the ESO 3.6-metre telescope, which has a limited range of application with this technique, is exciting news for astronomers. Existing equipment like this will be surpassed by much more advanced instruments on larger telescopes, such as ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the future European Extremely Large Telescope [5].

“We are now eagerly awaiting first light of the ESPRESSO spectrograph on the VLT so that we can do more detailed studies of this and other planetary systems,” concludes Nuno Santos, of the IA and Universidade do Porto, who is a co-author of the new paper.

Notes
[1] Both 51 Pegasi b and its host star 51 Pegasi are among the objects available for public naming in the IAU’s NameExoWorlds contest.

[2] Two earlier planetary objects were detected orbiting in the extreme environment of a pulsar.

[3] The challenge is similar to trying to study the faint glimmer reflected off a tiny insect flying around a distant and brilliant light.

[4] This means that the planet’s orbit is close to being edge on as seen from Earth, although this is not close enough for transits to take place.

[5] ESPRESSO on the VLT, and later even more powerful instruments on much larger telescopes such as the E-ELT, will allow for a significant increase in precision and collecting power, aiding the detection of smaller exoplanets, while providing an increase in detail in the data for planets similar to 51 Pegasi b.

Source: ESO

Star formation in what are now "dead" galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts.

This diagram illustrates this process. Galaxies in the early Universe appear at the left. The blue regions are where star formation is in progress and the red regions are the "dead" regions where only older redder stars remain and there are no more young blue stars being formed. The resulting giant spheroidal galaxies in the modern Universe appear on the right.

Credit:
ESO

Giant Galaxies Die from the Inside Out

VLT and Hubble observations show that star formation shuts down in the centres of elliptical galaxies first


Astronomers have shown for the first time how star formation in “dead” galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts. The results will be published in the 17 April 2015 issue of the journal Science.

Star formation in what are now "dead" galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts. This diagram illustrates this process. Galaxies in the early Universe appear at the left. The blue regions are where star formation is in progress and the red regions are the "dead" regions where only older redder stars remain and there are no more young blue stars being formed. The resulting giant spheroidal galaxies in the modern Universe appear on the right. Credit: ESO
Star formation in what are now “dead” galaxies sputtered out billions of years ago. ESO’s Very Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have revealed that three billion years after the Big Bang, these galaxies still made stars on their outskirts, but no longer in their interiors. The quenching of star formation seems to have started in the cores of the galaxies and then spread to the outer parts.
This diagram illustrates this process. Galaxies in the early Universe appear at the left. The blue regions are where star formation is in progress and the red regions are the “dead” regions where only older redder stars remain and there are no more young blue stars being formed. The resulting giant spheroidal galaxies in the modern Universe appear on the right.
Credit:
ESO

A major astrophysical mystery has centred on how massive, quiescent elliptical galaxies, common in the modern Universe, quenched their once furious rates of star formation. Such colossal galaxies, often also called spheroids because of their shape, typically pack in stars ten times as densely in the central regions as in our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and have about ten times its mass.

Astronomers refer to these big galaxies as red and dead as they exhibit an ample abundance of ancient red stars, but lack young blue stars and show no evidence of new star formation. The estimated ages of the red stars suggest that their host galaxies ceased to make new stars about ten billion years ago. This shutdown began right at the peak of star formation in the Universe, when many galaxies were still giving birth to stars at a pace about twenty times faster than nowadays.

“Massive dead spheroids contain about half of all the stars that the Universe has produced during its entire life,” said Sandro Tacchella of ETH Zurich in Switzerland, lead author of the article. “We cannot claim to understand how the Universe evolved and became as we see it today unless we understand how these galaxies come to be.”

Tacchella and colleagues observed a total of 22 galaxies, spanning a range of masses, from an era about three billion years after the Big Bang [1]. The SINFONI instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) collected light from this sample of galaxies, showing precisely where they were churning out new stars. SINFONI could make these detailed measurements of distant galaxies thanks to its adaptive optics system, which largely cancels out the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere.

The researchers also trained the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on the same set of galaxies, taking advantage of the telescope’s location in space above our planet’s distorting atmosphere. Hubble’s WFC3 camera snapped images in the near-infrared, revealing the spatial distribution of older stars within the actively star-forming galaxies.

“What is amazing is that SINFONI’s adaptive optics system can largely beat down atmospheric effects and gather information on where the new stars are being born, and do so with precisely the same accuracy as Hubble allows for the stellar mass distributions,” commented Marcella Carollo, also of ETH Zurich and co-author of the study.

According to the new data, the most massive galaxies in the sample kept up a steady production of new stars in their peripheries. In their bulging, densely packed centres, however, star formation had already stopped.

“The newly demonstrated inside-out nature of star formation shutdown in massive galaxies should shed light on the underlying mechanisms involved, which astronomers have long debated,” says Alvio Renzini, Padova Observatory, of the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics.

A leading theory is that star-making materials are scattered by torrents of energy released by a galaxy’s central supermassive black hole as it sloppily devours matter. Another idea is that fresh gas stops flowing into a galaxy, starving it of fuel for new stars and transforming it into a red and dead spheroid.

“There are many different theoretical suggestions for the physical mechanisms that led to the death of the massive spheroids,” said co-author Natascha Förster Schreiber, at the Max-Planck-Institut für extraterrestrische Physik in Garching, Germany. “Discovering that the quenching of star formation started from the centres and marched its way outwards is a very important step towards understanding how the Universe came to look like it does now.”

Notes
[1] The Universe’s age is about 13.8 billion years, so the galaxies studied by Tacchella and colleagues are generally seen as they were more than 10 billion years ago.

Source: ESO


This chart of the position of a nova (marked in red) that appeared in the year 1670 was recorded by the famous astronomer Hevelius and was published by the Royal Society in England in their journal Philosophical Transactions.

New observations made with APEX and other telescopes have now revealed that the star that European astronomers saw was not a nova, but a much rarer, violent breed of stellar collision. It was spectacular enough to be easily seen with the naked eye during its first outburst, but the traces it left were so faint that very careful analysis using submillimetre telescopes was needed before the mystery could finally be unravelled more than 340 years later.

Credit:
Royal Society

Colliding Stars Explain Enigmatic Seventeenth Century Explosion

APEX observations help unravel mystery of Nova Vulpeculae 1670


New observations made with APEX and other telescopes reveal that the star that European astronomers saw appear in the sky in 1670 was not a nova, but a much rarer, violent breed of stellar collision. It was spectacular enough to be easily seen with the naked eye during its first outburst, but the traces it left were so faint that very careful analysis using submillimetre telescopes was needed before the mystery could finally be unravelled more than 340 years later. The results appear online in the journal Nature on 23 March 2015.

This chart of the position of a nova (marked in red) that appeared in the year 1670 was recorded by the famous astronomer Hevelius and was published by the Royal Society in England in their journal Philosophical Transactions. New observations made with APEX and other telescopes have now revealed that the star that European astronomers saw was not a nova, but a much rarer, violent breed of stellar collision. It was spectacular enough to be easily seen with the naked eye during its first outburst, but the traces it left were so faint that very careful analysis using submillimetre telescopes was needed before the mystery could finally be unravelled more than 340 years later. Credit: Royal Society
This chart of the position of a nova (marked in red) that appeared in the year 1670 was recorded by the famous astronomer Hevelius and was published by the Royal Society in England in their journal Philosophical Transactions.
New observations made with APEX and other telescopes have now revealed that the star that European astronomers saw was not a nova, but a much rarer, violent breed of stellar collision. It was spectacular enough to be easily seen with the naked eye during its first outburst, but the traces it left were so faint that very careful analysis using submillimetre telescopes was needed before the mystery could finally be unravelled more than 340 years later.
Credit:
Royal Society

Some of seventeenth century’s greatest astronomers, including Hevelius — the father of lunar cartography — and Cassini, carefully documented the appearance of a new star in the skies in 1670. Hevelius described it as nova sub capite Cygni — a new star below the head of the Swan — but astronomers now know it by the name Nova Vulpeculae 1670 [1]. Historical accounts of novae are rare and of great interest to modern astronomers. Nova Vul 1670 is claimed to be both the oldest recorded nova and the faintest nova when later recovered.

The lead author of the new study, Tomasz Kamiński (ESO and the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany) explains: “For many years this object was thought to be a nova, but the more it was studied the less it looked like an ordinary nova — or indeed any other kind of exploding star.”

When it first appeared, Nova Vul 1670 was easily visible with the naked eye and varied in brightness over the course of two years. It then disappeared and reappeared twice before vanishing for good. Although well documented for its time, the intrepid astronomers of the day lacked the equipment needed to solve the riddle of the apparent nova’s peculiar performance.

During the twentieth century, astronomers came to understand that most novae could be explained by the runaway explosive behaviour of close binary stars. But Nova Vul 1670 did not fit this model well at all and remained a mystery.

Even with ever-increasing telescopic power, the event was believed for a long time to have left no trace, and it was not until the 1980s that a team of astronomers detected a faint nebula surrounding the suspected location of what was left of the star. While these observations offered a tantalising link to the sighting of 1670, they failed to shed any new light on the true nature of the event witnessed over the skies of Europe over three hundred years ago.

This picture shows the remains of the new star that was seen in the year 1670. It was created from a combination of visible-light images from the Gemini telescope (blue), a submillimetre map showing the dust from the SMA (green) and finally a map of the molecular emission from APEX and the SMA (red). The star that European astronomers saw in 1670 was not a nova, but a much rarer, violent breed of stellar collision. It was spectacular enough to be easily seen with the naked eye during its first outburst, but the traces it left were so faint that very careful analysis using submillimetre telescopes was needed before the mystery could finally be unravelled more than 340 years later. Credit: ESO/T. Kamiński
This picture shows the remains of the new star that was seen in the year 1670. It was created from a combination of visible-light images from the Gemini telescope (blue), a submillimetre map showing the dust from the SMA (green) and finally a map of the molecular emission from APEX and the SMA (red).
The star that European astronomers saw in 1670 was not a nova, but a much rarer, violent breed of stellar collision. It was spectacular enough to be easily seen with the naked eye during its first outburst, but the traces it left were so faint that very careful analysis using submillimetre telescopes was needed before the mystery could finally be unravelled more than 340 years later.
Credit:
ESO/T. Kamiński

 

Tomasz Kamiński continues the story: “We have now probed the area with submillimetre and radio wavelengths. We have found that the surroundings of the remnant are bathed in a cool gas rich in molecules, with a very unusual chemical composition.”

As well as APEX, the team also used the Submillimeter Array (SMA) and the Effelsberg radio telescope to discover the chemical composition and measure the ratios of different isotopes in the gas. Together, this created an extremely detailed account of the makeup of the area, which allowed an evaluation of where this material might have come from.

What the team discovered was that the mass of the cool material was too great to be the product of a nova explosion, and in addition the isotope ratios the team measured around Nova Vul 1670 were different to those expected from a nova. But if it wasn’t a nova, then what was it?

The answer is a spectacular collision between two stars, more brilliant than a nova, but less so than a supernova, which produces something called a red transient. These are a very rare events in which stars explode due to a merger with another star, spewing material from the stellar interiors into space, eventually leaving behind only a faint remnant embedded in a cool environment, rich in molecules and dust. This newly recognised class of eruptive stars fits the profile of Nova Vul 1670 almost exactly.

Co-author Karl Menten (Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, Bonn, Germany) concludes: “This kind of discovery is the most fun: something that is completely unexpected!”

Notes
[1] This object lies within the boundaries of the modern constellation of Vulpecula (The Fox), just across the border from Cygnus (The Swan). It is also often referred to as Nova Vul 1670 and CK Vulpeculae, its designation as a variable star.

Source: ESO News

 

A second minor planet may possess Saturn-like rings

Researchers detect features around Chiron that may signal rings, jets, or a shell of dust.

By Jennifer Chu


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – There are only five bodies in our solar system that are known to bear rings. The most obvious is the planet Saturn; to a lesser extent, rings of gas and dust also encircle Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune. The fifth member of this haloed group is Chariklo, one of a class of minor planets called centaurs: small, rocky bodies that possess qualities of both asteroids and comets.

Scientists only recently detected Chariklo’s ring system — a surprising finding, as it had been thought that centaurs are relatively dormant. Now scientists at MIT and elsewhere have detected a possible ring system around a second centaur, Chiron.

In November 2011, the group observed a stellar occultation in which Chiron passed in front of a bright star, briefly blocking its light. The researchers analyzed the star’s light emissions, and the momentary shadow created by Chiron, and identified optical features that suggest the centaur may possess a circulating disk of debris. The team believes the features may signify a ring system, a circular shell of gas and dust, or symmetric jets of material shooting out from the centaur’s surface.

“It’s interesting, because Chiron is a centaur — part of that middle section of the solar system, between Jupiter and Pluto, where we originally weren’t thinking things would be active, but it’s turning out things are quite active,” says Amanda Bosh, a lecturer in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Bosh and her colleagues at MIT — Jessica Ruprecht, Michael Person, and Amanda Gulbis — have published their results in the journal Icarus.

Catching a shadow

Chiron, discovered in 1977, was the first planetary body categorized as a centaur, after the mythological Greek creature — a hybrid of man and beast. Like their mythological counterparts, centaurs are hybrids, embodying traits of both asteroids and comets. Today, scientists estimate there are more than 44,000 centaurs in the solar system, concentrated mainly in a band between the orbits of Jupiter and Pluto.

While most centaurs are thought to be dormant, scientists have seen glimmers of activity from Chiron. Starting in the late 1980s, astronomers observed patterns of brightening from the centaur, as well as activity similar to that of a streaking comet.

In 1993 and 1994, James Elliot, then a professor of planetary astronomy and physics at MIT, observed a stellar occultation of Chiron and made the first estimates of its size. Elliot also observed features in the optical data that looked like jets of water and dust spewing from the centaur’s surface.

Now MIT researchers — some of them former members of Elliot’s group — have obtained more precise observations of Chiron, using two large telescopes in Hawaii: NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility, on Mauna Kea, and the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, at Haleakala.

In 2010, the team started to chart the orbits of Chiron and nearby stars in order to pinpoint exactly when the centaur might pass across a star bright enough to detect. The researchers determined that such a stellar occultation would occur on Nov. 29, 2011, and reserved time on the two large telescopes in hopes of catching Chiron’s shadow.

“There’s an aspect of serendipity to these observations,” Bosh says. “We need a certain amount of luck, waiting for Chiron to pass in front of a star that is bright enough. Chiron itself is small enough that the event is very short; if you blink, you might miss it.”

The team observed the stellar occultation remotely, from MIT’s Building 54. The entire event lasted just a few minutes, and the telescopes recorded the fading light as Chiron cast its shadow over the telescopes.

Rings around a theory

The group analyzed the resulting light, and detected something unexpected. A simple body, with no surrounding material, would create a straightforward pattern, blocking the star’s light entirely. But the researchers observed symmetrical, sharp features near the start and end of the stellar occultation — a sign that material such as dust might be blocking a fraction of the starlight.

The researchers observed two such features, each about 300 kilometers from the center of the centaur. Judging from the optical data, the features are 3 and 7 kilometers wide, respectively.  The features are similar to what Elliot observed in the 1990s.

In light of these new observations, the researchers say that Chiron may still possess symmetrical jets of gas and dust, as Elliot first proposed. However, other interpretations may be equally valid, including the “intriguing possibility,” Bosh says, of a shell or ring of gas and dust.

Ruprecht, who is a researcher at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, says it is possible to imagine a scenario in which centaurs may form rings: For example, when a body breaks up, the resulting debris can be captured gravitationally around another body, such as Chiron. Rings can also be leftover material from the formation of Chiron itself.

“Another possibility involves the history of Chiron’s distance from the sun,” Ruprecht says. “Centaurs may have started further out in the solar system and, through gravitational interactions with giant planets, have had their orbits perturbed closer in to the sun. The frozen material that would have been stable out past Pluto is becoming less stable closer in, and can turn into gases that spray dust and material off the surface of a body. ”

An independent group has since combined the MIT group’s occultation data with other light data, and has concluded that the features around Chiron most likely represent a ring system. However, Ruprecht says that researchers will have to observe more stellar occultations of Chiron to truly determine which interpretation — rings, shell, or jets — is the correct one.

“If we want to make a strong case for rings around Chiron, we’ll need observations by multiple observers, distributed over a few hundred kilometers, so that we can map the ring geometry,” Ruprecht says. “But that alone doesn’t tell us if the rings are a temporary feature of Chiron, or a more permanent one. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Nevertheless, Bosh says the possibility of a second ringed centaur in the solar system is an enticing one.

“Until Chariklo’s rings were found, it was commonly believed that these smaller bodies don’t have ring systems,” Bosh says. “If Chiron has a ring system, it will show it’s more common than previously thought.”

This research was funded in part by NASA and the National Research Foundation of South Africa.

Source: MIT News Office

This image, taken by OmegaCAM on the VLT Survey Telescope at Paranal Observatory, shows a section of the Ara OB1 stellar association. In the centre of the image is the young open cluster NGC 6193, and to the right is the emission nebula NGC 6188, illuminated by the ionising radiation emitted by the brightest nearby stars. 

Credit:
ESO

Usage of ESO Images and Videos
Are you a journalist? Subscribe to the ESO Media Newsletter in your language.

A Grand Extravaganza of New Stars: ESO Image Release

This image, taken by OmegaCAM on the VLT Survey Telescope at Paranal Observatory, shows a section of the Ara OB1 stellar association. In the centre of the image is the young open cluster NGC 6193, and to the right is the emission nebula NGC 6188, illuminated by the ionising radiation emitted by the brightest nearby stars.  Credit: ESO Usage of ESO Images and Videos Are you a journalist? Subscribe to the ESO Media Newsletter in your language.
This image, taken by OmegaCAM on the VLT Survey Telescope at Paranal Observatory, shows a section of the Ara OB1 stellar association. In the centre of the image is the young open cluster NGC 6193, and to the right is the emission nebula NGC 6188, illuminated by the ionising radiation emitted by the brightest nearby stars.
Credit: ESO

This dramatic landscape in the southern constellation of Ara (The Altar) is a treasure trove of celestial objects. Star clusters, emission nebulae and active star-forming regions are just some of the riches observed in this region lying some 4000 light-years from Earth. This beautiful new image is the most detailed view of this part of the sky so far, and was taken using the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

At the centre of the image is the open star cluster NGC 6193, containing around thirty bright stars and forming the heart of the Ara OB1 association. The two brightest stars are very hot giant stars. Together, they provide the main source of illumination for the nearby emission nebula, the Rim Nebula, or NGC 6188, which is visible to the right of the cluster.

A stellar association is a large grouping of loosely bound stars that have not yet completely drifted away from their initial formation site. OB associations consist largely of very young blue–white stars, which are about 100 000 times brighter than the Sun and between 10 and 50 times more massive.

The Rim Nebula is the prominent wall of dark and bright clouds marking the boundary between an active star-forming region within the molecular cloud, known as RCW 108, and the rest of the association [1]. The area around RCW 108 is made up of mostly hydrogen — the primary ingredient in star formation. Such areas are also known as H II regions.

The ultraviolet radiation and intense stellar wind from the stars of NGC 6193 seem to be driving the next generation of star formation in the surrounding clouds of gas and dust. As cloud fragments collapse they heat up and eventually form new stars.

As the cloud creates new stars, it is simultaneously being eroded by the winds and radiation emitted by previous stars, and by violent supernova explosions. In this way, such star-forming H II regions tend to have a lifespan of just a few million years. Star formation is a very inefficient process, with only around 10% of the available material contributing to the process — the rest is blown off into space.

The Rim Nebula also shows signs of being in the early phase of “pillar formation”, meaning that in the future it could end up looking similar to other well-known star-forming regions, such as the Eagle Nebula (Messier 16, containing the famous Pillars of Creation) and the Cone Nebula (part of NGC 2264).

This single spectacular image was actually created from more than 500 individual pictures taken through four different colour filters with the VLT Survey Telescope. The total exposure time was more than 56 hours. It is the most detailed view of this region yet achieved.

Notes
[1] Furthermore, this nebula has additional modest fame among astronomers, as a previous image was used as the cover of the DVD distribution of the collection of software for astronomers assembled by ESO: Scisoft, whose newest version was released a few weeks ago. It is therefore also known as the Scisoft 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