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VLT (Very Large Telescope) of ESO on Cerro Paranal

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VLT is a telescope facility operated by ESO (European Southern Observatory) on the Cerro Paranal mountain in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile at an elevation of 2,635 m (coordinates: 24°37'38''S, 70°24'17''W).

VLT is the flagship facility for European ground-based astronomy at the beginning of the third Millennium. It is the world's most advanced optical instrument, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors of 8.2m diameter and four movable 1.8m diameter ATs (Auxiliary Telescopes). The telescopes can work together, to form a giant ‘interferometer’, the ESO VLTI (Very Large Telescope Interferometer), allowing astronomers to see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes. The VLTI functions like a telescope with a mirror 200 m in diameter. The light beams are combined in the VLTI using a complex system of mirrors in underground tunnels where the light paths must be kept equal to distances less than 1/1000 mm over a hundred meters. With this kind of precision, the VLTI can reconstruct images with an angular resolution of milliarcseconds (marcsec), equivalent to distinguishing the two headlights of a car at the distance of the Moon. 1)

ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organization in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and by Australia as a strategic partner. ESO carries out an ambitious program focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organizing cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: , Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-meter ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

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Figure 1: Aerial view of the observing platform on the top of Cerro Paranal, with the four enclosures for the 8.2-m UTs (Unit Telescopes) and various installations for the VLT Interferometer (VLTI). Three 1.8 m VLTI ATs (Auxiliary Telescopes) and paths of the light beams have been superimposed on the photo. Also seen are some of the 30 "stations" where the ATs will be positioned for observations and from where the light beams from the telescopes can enter the Interferometric Tunnel below. The straight structures are supports for the rails on which the telescopes can move from one station to another. The Interferometric Laboratory (partly subterranean) is at the center of the platform (image credit: ESO)

The 8.2m diameter Unit Telescopes can also be used individually. With one such telescope, images of celestial objects as faint as magnitude 30 can be obtained in a one-hour exposure. This corresponds to seeing objects that are four billion (four thousand million) times fainter than what can be seen with the unaided eye.

The large telescopes are named Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun, which are the names for the Sun, the Moon, the Southern Cross, and Venus in the language of the Mapuche people.

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Figure 2: Alternate view of ESO's Paranal Observatory hosting several world-class telescopes; among them are the Very Large Telescope, the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, and the VLT Survey Telescope. Other scientific and support facilities are also located at Paranal, including several smaller telescopes and an innovative accommodation facility known as the Residencia (image credit: ESO) 2)


Some Background:

ESO (European Southern Observatory) is a 16-nation intergovernmental research organization for ground-based astronomy. Created in 1962, ESO has provided astronomers with state-of-the-art research facilities and access to the southern sky. The organization employs about 730 staff members and receives annual member state contributions of approximately €131 million. Its observatories are located in northern Chile. 3)

ESO has built and operated some of the largest and most technologically advanced telescopes. These include the NTT (New Technology Telescope), an early pioneer in the use of active optics, and the VLT (Very Large Telescope), which consists of four individual telescopes, each with a primary mirror 8.2 m across, and four smaller auxiliary telescopes. The ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter Array) observes the universe in the millimeter and su-millimeter wavelength ranges, and is the world's largest ground-based astronomy project to date. It was completed in March 2013 in an international collaboration by Europe (represented by ESO), North America, East Asia and Chile.

Currently under construction is the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope). It will use a 39.3 meter diameter segmented mirror, and become the world's largest optical reflecting telescope when operational in 2024. Its light-gathering power will allow detailed studies of planets around other stars, the first objects in the universe, supermassive black holes, and the nature and distribution of the dark matter and dark energy which dominate the universe.

ESO's observing facilities have made astronomical discoveries and produced several astronomical catalogs. Its findings include the discovery of the most distant gamma-ray burst and evidence for a black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

In 2004, the VLT allowed astronomers to obtain the first picture of an extrasolar planet (2M1207b) orbiting a brown dwarf 173 light-years away. The HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) instrument installed in another ESO telescope led to the discovery of extrasolar planets, including Gliese 581c—one of the smallest planets seen outside the solar system.

Construction of the VLT began in 1991, and its first observations were made in 1998. Among the VLT’s notable discoveries are the first direct spectrum of an extrasolar planet, HR 8799c, and the first direct measurement of the mass of an extrasolar planet, HD 209458b. The VLT also discovered the most massive star known, R136a1, which has a mass 265 times that of the Sun. The VLT is operated by the European Southern Observatory. 4)

Chilean observation sites:

Although ESO is headquartered in Garching, Germany, its telescopes and observatories are in northern Chile, where the organization operates advanced ground-based astronomical facilities:

La Silla, which hosts the New Technology Telescope (NTT)

Paranal, where the VLT (Very Large Telescope) is located

Llano de Chajnantor, which hosts the APEX (Atacama Pathfinder Experiment) submillimeter telescope and where ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array), is located.

These are among the best locations for astronomical observations in the southern hemisphere. An ESO project is the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), a 40 m class telescope based on a five-mirror design and the formerly planned Overwhelmingly Large Telescope. The ELT will be the largest optical near-infrared telescope in the world. ESO began its design in early 2006, and aimed to begin construction in 2012. Construction work at the ELT site started in June 2014. As decided by the ESO council on 26 April 2010, a fourth site (Cerro Armazones) is to be home to ELT.

Each year about 2,000 requests are made for the use of ESO telescopes, for four to six times more nights than are available. Observations made with these instruments appear in a number of peer-reviewed publications annually; in 2009, more than 650 reviewed papers based on ESO data were published.

ESO telescopes generate large amounts of data at a high rate, which are stored in a permanent archive facility at ESO headquarters. The archive contains more than 1.5 million images (or spectra) with a total volume of about 65 TB of data.

Name

Acronym

Size

Type

Location (Chile)

Year

ESO 3.6 m telescope – hosting HARPS

ESO 3.6 m

3.57 m

optical and infrared

La Silla

1977

MPG/ESO 2.2 m telescope

MPG

2.20 m

optical and infrared

La Silla

1984

New Technology Telescope

NTT

3.58 m

optical and infrared

La Silla

1989

Very Large Telescope

VLT

4 x 8.2 m, 4 x 1.8 m

optical and mid-infrared

Paranal

1998

Atacama Pathfinder Experiment

APEX

12 m

mm/sub-mm wavelength

Chajnantor

2005

Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy

VISTA

4.1 m

near-infrared, survey

Paranal

2009

VLT Survey Telescope

VST

2.6 m

optical, survey

Paranal

2011

Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array

ALMA

50 x 12 m, 12 x 7 m
4 x 12 m

mm/sub-mm interferometer
array

Chajnantor

2011

Extremely Large Telescope

ELT

39.3 m

optical to mid-infrared

Cerro Amazones

2024

Table 1: ESO telescopes

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Figure 3: Aerial view of Paranal with VISTA in the foreground and the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in the background (image credit: ESO/G.Hüdepohl)




Sample Observations with VLT (Very Large Telescope) and some status

• December 22, 2021: Rogue planets are elusive cosmic objects that have masses comparable to those of the planets in our Solar System but do not orbit a star, instead roaming freely on their own. Not many were known until now, but a team of astronomers, using data from several European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes and other facilities, have just discovered at least 70 new rogue planets in our galaxy. This is the largest group of rogue planets ever discovered, an important step towards understanding the origins and features of these mysterious galactic nomads. 5)

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Figure 4: This artist’s impression shows an example of a rogue planet with the Rho Ophiuchi cloud complex visible in the background. Rogue planets have masses comparable to those of the planets in our Solar System but do not orbit a star, instead roaming freely on their own (image credit: ESO, M. Kornmesser)

- “We did not know how many to expect and are excited to have found so many,” says Núria Miret-Roig, an astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux, France and the University of Vienna, Austria, and the first author of the new study published today in Nature Astronomy.

- Rogue planets, lurking far away from any star illuminating them, would normally be impossible to image. However, Miret-Roig and her team took advantage of the fact that, in the few million years after their formation, these planets are still hot enough to glow, making them directly detectable by sensitive cameras on large telescopes. They found at least 70 new rogue planets with masses comparable to Jupiter’s in a star-forming region close to our Sun, located within the Scorpius and Ophiuchus constellations [1].

Notes: [1] The exact number of rogue planets found by the team is hard to pin down because the observations don’t allow the researchers to measure the masses of the probed objects. Objects with masses higher than about 13 times the mass of Jupiter are most likely not planets, so they cannot be included in the count. However, since the team didn’t have values for the mass, they had to rely on studying the planets’ brightness to provide an upper limit to the number of rogue planets observed. The brightness is, in turn, related to the age of the planets themselves, as the older the planet, the longer it has been cooling down and reducing in brightness. If the studied region is old, then the brightest objects in the sample are likely above 13 Jupiter masses, and below if the region is on the younger side. Given the uncertainty in the age of the study region, this method gives a rogue planet count of between 70 and 170.

- To spot so many rogue planets, the team used data spanning about 20 years from a number of telescopes on the ground and in space. “We measured the tiny motions, the colors and luminosities of tens of millions of sources in a large area of the sky,” explains Miret-Roig. “These measurements allowed us to securely identify the faintest objects in this region, the rogue planets.”

- The team used observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) and the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope located in Chile, along with other facilities. “The vast majority of our data come from ESO observatories, which were absolutely critical for this study. Their wide field of view and unique sensitivity were keys to our success,” explains Hervé Bouy, an astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux, France, and project leader of the new research. “We used tens of thousands of wide-field images from ESO facilities, corresponding to hundreds of hours of observations, and literally tens of terabytes of data.”

- The team also used data from the European Space Agency’s Gaia satellite, marking a huge success for the collaboration of ground- and space-based telescopes in the exploration and understanding of our Universe.

- The study suggests there could be many more of these elusive, starless planets that we have yet to discover. “There could be several billions of these free-floating giant planets roaming freely in the Milky Way without a host star,” Bouy explains.

- By studying the newly found rogue planets, astronomers may find clues to how these mysterious objects form. Some scientists believe rogue planets can form from the collapse of a gas cloud that is too small to lead to the formation of a star, or that they could have been kicked out from their parent system. But which mechanism is more likely remains unknown.

- Further advances in technology will be key to unlocking the mystery of these nomadic planets. The team hopes to continue to study them in greater detail with ESO’s forthcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in the Chilean Atacama Desert and due to start observations later this decade. “These objects are extremely faint and little can be done to study them with current facilities,” says Bouy. “The ELT will be absolutely crucial to gathering more information about most of the rogue planets we have found.”

• December 14, 2021: The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (ESO’s VLTI) has obtained the deepest and sharpest images to date of the region around the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. The new images zoom in 20 times more than what was possible before the VLTI and have helped astronomers find a never-before-seen star close to the black hole. By tracking the orbits of stars at the centre of our Milky Way, the team has made the most precise measurement yet of the black hole’s mass.6)

Note: ESO's VLTI (Very Large Telescope Interferometer) consists in the coherent combination of the four VLT Unit Telescopes or the four moveable 1.8m Auxiliary Telescopes. The VLTI provides milli-arcsec angular resolution at low and intermediate (R=5000) spectral resolution at near and mid-infrared wavelengths.

The four 8.2-m Unit Telescopes (UTs) and the four 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs) are the light collecting elements of the VLTI. The UTs are set on fixed locations while the ATs can be relocated on more than 10 different stations. VLTI instruments all recombine the light from four telescopes simultaneously. After the light beams have passed through a complex system of mirrors and the light paths have been equalized by the delay line system, the light re-combination is performed by the PIONIER and GRAVITY instruments in the near infrared and by MATISSE in the mid-infrared part of the spectrum.

Due to its unique characteristics, the VLTI has become a very attractive means for scientific research on various objects like young pre-main sequence stars and their protoplanetary disks, post-main sequence mass-losing stars, binary objects and their orbits, solar system asteroids, and extragalactic objects such as active galactic nuclei.

Table 2: Definition of ESO's VLTI 7)

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Figure 5: These annotated images, obtained with the GRAVITY instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) between March and July 2021, show stars orbiting very close to Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way. One of these stars, named S29, was observed as it was making its closest approach to the black hole at 13 billion km, just 90 times the distance between the Sun and Earth. Another star, named S300, was detected for the first time in the new VLTI observations. - To obtain the new images, the astronomers used a machine-learning technique, called Information Field Theory. They made a model of how the real sources may look, simulated how GRAVITY would see them, and compared this simulation with GRAVITY observations. This allowed them to find and track stars around Sagittarius A* with unparalleled depth and accuracy (image credit: ESO/GRAVITY collaboration)

- “We want to learn more about the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, Sagittarius A*: How massive is it exactly? Does it rotate? Do stars around it behave exactly as we expect from Einstein’s general theory of relativity? The best way to answer these questions is to follow stars on orbits close to the supermassive black hole. And here we demonstrate that we can do that to a higher precision than ever before,” explains Reinhard Genzel, a director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany who was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2020 for Sagittarius A* research. Genzel and his team’s latest results, which expand on their three-decade-long study of stars orbiting the Milky Way's supermassive black hole, are published today in two papers in Astronomy & Astrophysics. 8)

- On a quest to find even more stars close to the black hole, the team, known as the GRAVITY collaboration, developed a new analysis technique that has allowed them to obtain the deepest and sharpest images yet of our Galactic Centre. “The VLTI gives us this incredible spatial resolution and with the new images we reach deeper than ever before. We are stunned by their amount of detail, and by the action and number of stars they reveal around the black hole,” explains Julia Stadler, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching who led the team’s imaging efforts during her time at MPE. Remarkably, they found a star, called S300, which had not been seen previously, showing how powerful this method is when it comes to spotting very faint objects close to Sagittarius A*.

- With their latest observations, conducted between March and July 2021, the team focused on making precise measurements of stars as they approached the black hole. This includes the record-holder star S29, which made its nearest approach to the black hole in late May 2021. It passed it at a distance of just 13 billion km, about 90 times the Sun-Earth distance, at the stunning speed of 8740 km/s. No other star has ever been observed to pass that close to, or travel that fast around, the black hole.

- The team’s measurements and images were made possible thanks to GRAVITY, a unique instrument that the collaboration developed for ESO’s VLTI, located in Chile. GRAVITY combines the light of all four 8.2-meter telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) using a technique called interferometry. This technique is complex, “but in the end you arrive at images 20 times sharper than those from the individual VLT telescopes alone, revealing the secrets of the Galactic Centre,” says Frank Eisenhauer from MPE, principal investigator of GRAVITY.

- “Following stars on close orbits around Sagittarius A* allows us to precisely probe the gravitational field around the closest massive black hole to Earth, to test General Relativity, and to determine the properties of the black hole,” explains Genzel. The new observations, combined with the team’s previous data, confirm that the stars follow paths exactly as predicted by General Relativity for objects moving around a black hole of mass 4.30 million times that of the Sun. This is the most precise estimate of the mass of the Milky Way’s central black hole to date. The researchers also managed to fine-tune the distance to Sagittarius A*, finding it to be 27,000 light-years away.

- To obtain the new images, the astronomers used a machine-learning technique, called Information Field Theory. They made a model of how the real sources may look, simulated how GRAVITY would see them, and compared this simulation with GRAVITY observations. This allowed them to find and track stars around Sagittarius A* with unparalleled depth and accuracy. In addition to the GRAVITY observations, the team also used data from NACO and SINFONI, two former VLT instruments, as well as measurements from the Keck Observatory and NOIRLab’s Gemini Observatory in the US.

- GRAVITY will be updated later this decade to GRAVITY+, which will also be installed on ESO’s VLTI and will push the sensitivity further to reveal fainter stars even closer to the black hole. The team aims to eventually find stars so close that their orbits would feel the gravitational effects caused by the black hole’s rotation. ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), under construction in the Chilean Atacama Desert, will further allow the team to measure the velocity of these stars with very high precision. “With GRAVITY+’s and the ELT’s powers combined, we will be able to find out how fast the black hole spins,” says Eisenhauer. “Nobody has been able to do that so far.”

• December 8, 2021: he European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) has captured an image of a planet orbiting b Centauri, a two-star system that can be seen with the naked eye. This is the hottest and most massive planet-hosting star system found to date, and the planet was spotted orbiting it at 100 times the distance Jupiter orbits the Sun. Some astronomers believed planets could not exist around stars this massive and this hot — until now. 9)

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Figure 6: This image shows the most massive planet-hosting star pair to date, b Centauri, and its giant planet b Centauri b. This is the first time astronomers have directly observed a planet orbiting a star pair this massive and hot. - The star pair, which has a total mass of at least six times that of the Sun, is the bright object in the top left corner of the image, the bright and dark rings around it being optical artefacts. The planet, visible as a bright dot in the lower right of the frame, is ten times as massive as Jupiter and orbits the pair at 100 times the distance Jupiter orbits the Sun. The other bright dot in the image (top right) is a background star. By taking different images at different times, astronomers were able to distinguish the planet from the background stars. - The image was captured by the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope and using a coronagraph, which blocked the light from the massive star system and allowed astronomers to detect the faint planet (image credit: ESO/Janson et al.)

- “Finding a planet around b Centauri was very exciting since it completely changes the picture about massive stars as planet hosts,” explains Markus Janson, an astronomer at Stockholm University, Sweden and first author of the new study published online today in Nature. 10)

- Located approximately 325 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus, the b Centauri two-star system (also known as HIP 71865) has at least six times the mass of the Sun, making it by far the most massive system around which a planet has been confirmed. Until now, no planets had been spotted around a star more than three times as massive as the Sun.

- Most massive stars are also very hot, and this system is no exception: its main star is a so-called B-type star that is over three times as hot as the Sun. Owing to its intense temperature, it emits large amounts of ultraviolet and X-ray radiation.

- The large mass and the heat from this type of star have a strong impact on the surrounding gas, that should work against planet formation. In particular, the hotter a star is, the more high-energy radiation it produces, which causes the surrounding material to evaporate faster. “B-type stars are generally considered as quite destructive and dangerous environments, so it was believed that it should be exceedingly difficult to form large planets around them,” Janson says.

- But the new discovery shows planets can in fact form in such severe star systems. “The planet in b Centauri is an alien world in an environment that is completely different from what we experience here on Earth and in our Solar System,” explains co-author Gayathri Viswanath, a PhD student at Stockholm University. “It’s a harsh environment, dominated by extreme radiation, where everything is on a gigantic scale: the stars are bigger, the planet is bigger, the distances are bigger.”

- Indeed, the planet discovered, named b Centauri (AB)b or b Centauri b, is also extreme. It is 10 times as massive as Jupiter, making it one of the most massive planets ever found. Moreover, it moves around the star system in one of the widest orbits yet discovered, at a distance a staggering 100 times greater than the distance of Jupiter from the Sun. This large distance from the central pair of stars could be key to the planet’s survival.

- These results were made possible thanks to the sophisticated Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument (SPHERE) mounted on ESO’s VLT in Chile. SPHERE has successfully imaged several planets orbiting stars other than the Sun before, including taking the first ever-image of two planets orbiting a Sun-like star.

- However, SPHERE was not the first instrument to image this planet. As part of their study, the team looked into archival data on the b Centauri system and discovered that the planet had actually been imaged more than 20 years ago by the ESO 3.6-m telescope, though it was not recognized as a planet at the time.

- With ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), due to start observations later this decade, and with upgrades to the VLT, astronomers may be able to unveil more about this planet’s formation and features. “It will be an intriguing task to try to figure out how it might have formed, which is a mystery at the moment,” concludes Janson.

• November 30, 2021: Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), astronomers have revealed the closest pair of supermassive black holes to Earth ever observed. The two objects also have a much smaller separation than any other previously spotted pair of supermassive black holes and will eventually merge into one giant black hole. 11)

- Located in the galaxy NGC 7727 in the constellation Aquarius, the supermassive black hole pair is about 89 million light-years away from Earth. Although this may seem distant, it beats the previous record of 470 million light-years by quite some margin, making the newfound supermassive black hole pair the closest to us yet.

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Figure 7: This image shows close-up (left) and wide (right) views of the two bright galactic nuclei, each housing a supermassive black hole, in NGC 7727, a galaxy located 89 million light-years away from Earth in the constellation Aquarius. Each nucleus consists of a dense group of stars with a supermassive black hole at its center. The two black holes are on a collision course and form the closest pair of supermassive black holes found to date. It is also the pair with the smallest separation between two supermassive black holes found to date — observed to be just 1600 light-years apart in the sky. — The image on the left was taken with the MUSE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile while the one on the right was taken with ESO's VLT Survey Telescope (image credit: ESO/Voggel et al.; ESO/VST ATLAS team. Acknowledgement: Durham University/CASU/WFAU)

- Supermassive black holes lurk at the center of massive galaxies and when two such galaxies merge, the black holes end up on a collision course. The pair in NGC 7727 beat the record for the smallest separation between two supermassive black holes, as they are observed to be just 1600 light-years apart in the sky. “It is the first time we find two supermassive black holes that are this close to each other, less than half the separation of the previous record holder,” says Karina Voggel, an astronomer at the Strasbourg Observatory in France and lead author of the study published online today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. 12)

- “The small separation and velocity of the two black holes indicate that they will merge into one monster black hole, probably within the next 250 million years,” adds co-author Holger Baumgardt, a professor at the University of Queensland, Australia. The merging of black holes like these could explain how the most massive black holes in the Universe come to be.

- Voggel and her team were able to determine the masses of the two objects by looking at how the gravitational pull of the black holes influences the motion of the stars around them. The bigger black hole, located right at the core of NGC 7727, was found to have a mass almost 154 million times that of the Sun, while its companion is 6.3 million solar masses.

- It is the first time the masses have been measured in this way for a supermassive black hole pair. This feat was made possible thanks to the close proximity of the system to Earth and the detailed observations the team obtained at the Paranal Observatory in Chile using the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s VLT, an instrument Voggel learnt to work with during her time as a student at ESO. Measuring the masses with MUSE, and using additional data from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, allowed the team to confirm that the objects in NGC 7727 were indeed supermassive black holes.

- Astronomers suspected that the galaxy hosted the two black holes, but they had not been able to confirm their presence until now since we do not see large amounts of high-energy radiation coming from their immediate surroundings, which would otherwise give them away. “Our finding implies that there might be many more of these relics of galaxy mergers out there and they may contain many hidden massive black holes that still wait to be found,” says Voggel. “It could increase the total number of supermassive black holes known in the local Universe by 30 percent.”

- The search for similarly hidden supermassive black hole pairs is expected to make a great leap forward with ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), set to start operating later this decade in Chile’s Atacama Desert. “This detection of a supermassive black hole pair is just the beginning,” says co-author Steffen Mieske, an astronomer at ESO in Chile and Head of ESO Paranal Science Operations. “With the HARMONI instrument on the ELT we will be able to make detections like this considerably further than currently possible. ESO’s ELT will be integral to understanding these objects.”

• November 11, 2021: Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), astronomers have discovered a small black hole outside the Milky Way by looking at how it influences the motion of a star in its close vicinity. This is the first time this detection method has been used to reveal the presence of a black hole outside of our galaxy. The method could be key to unveiling hidden black holes in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies, and to help shed light on how these mysterious objects form and evolve. 13)

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Figure 8: This artist’s impression shows a compact black hole 11 times as massive as the Sun and the five-solar-mass star orbiting it. The two objects are located in NGC 1850, a cluster of thousands of stars roughly 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a Milky Way neighbor. The distortion of the star’s shape is due to the strong gravitational force exerted by the black hole. - Not only does the black hole’s gravitational force distort the shape of the star, but it also influences its orbit. By looking at these subtle orbital effects, a team of astronomers were able to infer the presence of the black hole, making it the first small black hole outside of our galaxy to be found this way. For this discovery, the team used the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument at ESO’s VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile (image credit: ESO, M. Kornmesser)

- The newly found black hole was spotted lurking in NGC 1850, a cluster of thousands of stars roughly 160 000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbor galaxy of the Milky Way.

- “Similar to Sherlock Holmes tracking down a criminal gang from their missteps, we are looking at every single star in this cluster with a magnifying glass in one hand trying to find some evidence for the presence of black holes but without seeing them directly,” says Sara Saracino from the Astrophysics Research Institute of Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, who led the research now accepted for publication in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. “The result shown here represents just one of the wanted criminals, but when you have found one, you are well on your way to discovering many others, in different clusters.”

- This first “criminal” tracked down by the team turned out to be roughly 11 times as massive as our Sun. The smoking gun that put the astronomers on the trail of this black hole was its gravitational influence on the five-solar-mass star orbiting it.

- Astronomers have previously spotted such small, “stellar-mass” black holes in other galaxies by picking up the X-ray glow emitted as they swallow matter, or from the gravitational waves generated as black holes collide with one another or with neutron stars.

- However, most stellar-mass black holes don’t give away their presence through X-rays or gravitational waves. “The vast majority can only be unveiled dynamically,” says Stefan Dreizler, a team member based at the University of Göttingen in Germany. “When they form a system with a star, they will affect its motion in a subtle but detectable way, so we can find them with sophisticated instruments.”

- This dynamical method used by Saracino and her team could allow astronomers to find many more black holes and help unlock their mysteries. “Every single detection we make will be important for our future understanding of stellar clusters and the black holes in them,” says study co-author Mark Gieles from the University of Barcelona, Spain.

- The detection in NGC 1850 marks the first time a black hole has been found in a young cluster of stars (the cluster is only around 100 million years old, a blink of an eye on astronomical scales). Using their dynamical method in similar star clusters could unveil even more young black holes and shed new light on how they evolve. By comparing them with larger, more mature black holes in older clusters, astronomers would be able to understand how these objects grow by feeding on stars or merging with other black holes. Furthermore, charting the demographics of black holes in star clusters improves our understanding of the origin of gravitational wave sources.

- To carry out their search, the team used data collected over two years with the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) mounted at ESO’s VLT, located in the Chilean Atacama Desert. “MUSE allowed us to observe very crowded areas, like the innermost regions of stellar clusters, analyzing the light of every single star in the vicinity. The net result is information about thousands of stars in one shot, at least 10 times more than with any other instrument,” says co-author Sebastian Kamann, a long-time MUSE expert based at Liverpool’s Astrophysics Research Institute. This allowed the team to spot the odd star out whose peculiar motion signalled the presence of the black hole. Data from the University of Warsaw’s Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment and from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope enabled them to measure the mass of the black hole and confirm their findings.

- ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope in Chile, set to start operating later this decade, will allow astronomers to find even more hidden black holes. “The ELT will definitely revolutionize this field,” says Saracino. “It will allow us to observe stars considerably fainter in the same field of view, as well as to look for black holes in globular clusters located at much greater distances.”

- This research was presented in a paper to appear in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 14)

• October 12, 2021: Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile, astronomers have imaged 42 of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. Never before had such a large group of asteroids been imaged so sharply. The observations reveal a wide range of peculiar shapes, from spherical to dog-bone, and are helping astronomers trace the origins of the asteroids in our Solar System. 15)

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Figure 9: This image depicts 42 of the largest objects in the asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter. Most of them are larger than 100 km, with the two biggest asteroids being Ceres and Vesta, which are around 940 and 520 km in diameter, and the two smallest ones being Urania and Ausonia, each only about 90 km. - The images of the asteroids have been captured with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope [image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/Vernazza et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)]

- The detailed images of these 42 objects are a leap forward in exploring asteroids, made possible thanks to ground-based telescopes, and contribute to answering the ultimate question of life, the Universe, and everything.

- “Only three large main belt asteroids, Ceres, Vesta and Lutetia, have been imaged with a high level of detail so far, as they were visited by the space missions Dawn and Rosetta of NASA and the European Space Agency, respectively,” explains Pierre Vernazza, from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France, who led the asteroid study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. "Our ESO observations have provided sharp images for many more targets, 42 in total."

- The previously small number of detailed observations of asteroids meant that, until now, key characteristics such as their 3D shape or density had remained largely unknown. Between 2017 and 2019, Vernazza and his team set out to fill this gap by conducting a thorough survey of the major bodies in the asteroid belt.

- Most of the 42 objects in their sample are larger than 100 km in size; in particular, the team imaged nearly all of the belt asteroids larger than 200 km, 20 out of 23. The two biggest objects the team probed were Ceres and Vesta, which are around 940 and 520 km in diameter, whereas the two smallest asteroids are Urania and Ausonia, each only about 90 km.

- By reconstructing the objects’ shapes, the team realized that the observed asteroids are mainly divided into two families. Some are almost perfectly spherical, such as Hygiea and Ceres, while others have a more peculiar, “elongated” shape, their undisputed queen being the “dog-bone” asteroid Kleopatra.

- By combining the asteroids’ shapes with information on their masses, the team found that the densities change significantly across the sample. The four least dense asteroids studied, including Lamberta and Sylvia, have densities of about 1.3 gram/cm3, approximately the density of coal. The highest, Psyche and Kalliope, have densities of 3.9 and 4.4 gram/cm3, respectively, which is higher than the density of diamond (3.5 gram/cm3).

- This large difference in density suggests the asteroids’ composition varies significantly, giving astronomers important clues about their origin. “Our observations provide strong support for substantial migration of these bodies since their formation. In short, such tremendous variety in their composition can only be understood if the bodies originated across distinct regions in the Solar System,” explains Josef Hanuš of the Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic, one of the authors of the study. In particular, the results support the theory that the least dense asteroids formed in the remote regions beyond the orbit of Neptune and migrated to their current location.

- These findings were made possible thanks to the sensitivity of the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument mounted on ESO’s VLT. “With the improved capabilities of SPHERE, along with the fact that little was known regarding the shape of the largest main belt asteroids, we were able to make substantial progress in this field,” says co-author Laurent Jorda, also of the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille.

- Astronomers will be able to image even more asteroids in fine detail with ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile and set to start operations later this decade. “ELT observations of main-belt asteroids will allow us to study objects with diameters down to 35 to 80 km, depending on their location in the belt, and craters down to approximately 10 to 25 km in size,” says Vernazza. “Having a SPHERE-like instrument at the ELT would even allow us to image a similar sample of objects in the distant Kuiper Belt. This means we’ll be able to characterize the geological history of a much larger sample of small bodies from the ground.”

• September 9, 2021: Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), a team of astronomers have obtained the sharpest and most detailed images yet of the asteroid Kleopatra. The observations have allowed the team to constrain the 3D shape and mass of this peculiar asteroid, which resembles a dog bone, to a higher accuracy than ever before. Their research provides clues as to how this asteroid and the two moons that orbit it formed. 16) 17)

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Figure 10: Asteroid Kleopatra from different angles. These eleven images are of the asteroid Kleopatra, viewed at different angles as it rotates. The images were taken at different times between 2017 and 2019 with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s VLT. - Kleopatra orbits the Sun in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers have called it a “dog-bone asteroid” ever since radar observations around 20 years ago revealed it has two lobes connected by a thick “neck”[image credit: ESO/Vernazza, Marchis et al./MISTRAL algorithm (ONERA/CNRS)]

- “Kleopatra is truly a unique body in our Solar System,” says Franck Marchis, an astronomer at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, USA and at the Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille, France, who led a study on the asteroid — which has moons and an unusual shape — published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. “Science makes a lot of progress thanks to the study of weird outliers. I think Kleopatra is one of those and understanding this complex, multiple asteroid system can help us learn more about our Solar System.”

- Kleopatra orbits the Sun in the Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter. Astronomers have called it a “dog-bone asteroid” ever since radar observations around 20 years ago revealed it has two lobes connected by a thick “neck”. In 2008, Marchis and his colleagues discovered that Kleopatra is orbited by two moons, named AlexHelios and CleoSelene, after the Egyptian queen’s children.

- To find out more about Kleopatra, Marchis and his team used snapshots of the asteroid taken at different times between 2017 and 2019 with the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s VLT. As the asteroid was rotating, they were able to view it from different angles and to create the most accurate 3D models of its shape to date. They constrained the asteroid’s dog-bone shape and its volume, finding one of the lobes to be larger than the other, and determined the length of the asteroid to be about 270 km half the length of the English Channel.

- In a second study, also published in Astronomy & Astrophysics and led by Miroslav Brož of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, the team reported how they used the SPHERE observations to find the correct orbits of Kleopatra’s two moons. Previous studies had estimated the orbits, but the new observations with ESO’s VLT showed that the moons were not where the older data predicted them to be.

- “This had to be resolved,” says Brož. “Because if the moons’ orbits were wrong, everything was wrong, including the mass of Kleopatra.” Thanks to the new observations and sophisticated modelling, the team managed to precisely describe how Kleopatra’s gravity influences the moons’ movements and to determine the complex orbits of AlexHelios and CleoSelene. This allowed them to calculate the asteroid’s mass, finding it to be 35% lower than previous estimates.

- Combining the new estimates for volume and mass, astronomers were able to calculate a new value for the density of the asteroid, which, at less than half the density of iron, turned out to be lower than previously thought [1]. The low density of Kleopatra, which is believed to have a metallic composition, suggests that it has a porous structure and could be little more than a “pile of rubble”. This means it likely formed when material reaccumulated following a giant impact.

- Kleopatra’s rubble-pile structure and the way it rotates also give indications as to how its two moons could have formed. The asteroid rotates almost at a critical speed, the speed above which it would start to fall apart, and even small impacts may lift pebbles off its surface. Marchis and his team believe that those pebbles could subsequently have formed AlexHelios and CleoSelene, meaning that Kleopatra has truly birthed its own moons.

- The new images of Kleopatra and the insights they provide are only possible thanks to one of the advanced adaptive optics systems in use on ESO’s VLT, which is located in the Atacama Desert in Chile. Adaptive optics help to correct for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere which cause objects to appear blurred — the same effect that causes stars viewed from Earth to twinkle. Thanks to such corrections, SPHERE was able to image Kleopatra — located 200 million km away from Earth at its closest — even though its apparent size on the sky is equivalent to that of a golf ball about 40 km away.

- ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), with its advanced adaptive optics systems, will be ideal for imaging distant asteroids such as Kleopatra. “I can’t wait to point the ELT at Kleopatra, to see if there are more moons and refine their orbits to detect small changes,” adds Marchis.

• August 5, 2021: A team of astronomers have used the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) in Chile to shed new light on planets around a nearby star, L 98-59, that resemble those in the inner Solar System. Amongst the findings are a planet with half the mass of Venus — the lightest exoplanet ever to be measured using the radial velocity technique — an ocean world, and a possible planet in the habitable zone. 18)

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Figure 11: This artist’s impression shows L 98-59b, one of the planets in the L 98-59 system 35 light-years away. The system contains four confirmed rocky planets with a potential fifth, the furthest from the star, being unconfirmed. In 2021, astronomers used data from the Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations (ESPRESSO) instrument on ESO’s VLT to measure the mass of L 98-59b, finding it to be half that of Venus. This makes it the lightest planet measured to date using the radial velocity technique (image credit: ESO, M. Kornmesser)

- The planet in the habitable zone may have an atmosphere that could protect and support life,” says María Rosa Zapatero Osorio, an astronomer at the Centre for Astrobiology in Madrid, Spain, and one of the authors of the study published today in Astronomy & Astrophysics. 19)

- The results are an important step in the quest to find life on Earth-sized planets outside the Solar System. The detection of biosignatures on an exoplanet depends on the ability to study its atmosphere, but current telescopes are not large enough to achieve the resolution needed to do this for small, rocky planets. The newly studied planetary system, called L 98-59 after its star, is an attractive target for future observations of exoplanet atmospheres. Its orbits a star only 35 light-years away and has now been found to host rocky planets, like Earth or Venus, which are close enough to the star to be warm.

- With the contribution of ESO’s VLT, the team was able to infer that three of the planets may contain water in their interiors or atmospheres. The two planets closest to the star in the L 98-59 system are probably dry, but might have small amounts of water, while up to 30% of the third planet’s mass could be water, making it an ocean world.

- Furthermore, the team found “hidden” exoplanets that had not previously been spotted in this planetary system. They discovered a fourth planet and suspect there is a fifth, in a zone at the right distance from the star for liquid water to exist on its surface. “We have hints of the presence of a terrestrial planet in the habitable zone of this system,” explains Olivier Demangeon, a researcher at the Instituto de Astrofísica e Ciências do Espaço, University of Porto in Portugal and lead author of the new study.

- The study represents a technical breakthrough, as astronomers were able to determine, using the radial velocity method, that the innermost planet in the system has just half the mass of Venus. This makes it the lightest exoplanet ever measured using this technique, which calculates the wobble of the star caused by the tiny gravitational tug of its orbiting planets.

- The team used the ESPRESSO (Echelle SPectrograph for Rocky Exoplanets and Stable Spectroscopic Observations) instrument on ESO’s VLT to study L 98-59. “Without the precision and stability provided by ESPRESSO this measurement would have not been possible,” says Zapatero Osorio. “This is a step forward in our ability to measure the masses of the smallest planets beyond the Solar System.”

- The astronomers first spotted three of L 98-59’s planets in 2019, using NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS). This satellite relies on a technique called the transit method — where the dip in the light coming from the star caused by a planet passing in front of it is used to infer the properties of the planet — to find the planets and measure their sizes. However, it was only with the addition of radial velocity measurements made with ESPRESSO and its predecessor, the HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) at the ESO La Silla 3.6-meter telescope, that Demangeon and his team were able to find extra planets and measure the masses and radii of the first three. “If we want to know what a planet is made of, the minimum that we need is its mass and its radius,” Demangeon explains.

- The team hopes to continue to study the system with the forthcoming NASA/ESA/CSA JWST ( James Webb Space Telescope), while ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), under construction in the Chilean Atacama Desert and set to start observations in 2027, will also be ideal for studying these planets. “The HIRES instrument on the ELT may have the power to study the atmospheres of some of the planets in the L 98-59 system, thus complementing the JWST from the ground,” says Zapatero Osorio.

- “This system announces what is to come,” adds Demangeon. “We, as a society, have been chasing terrestrial planets since the birth of astronomy and now we are finally getting closer and closer to the detection of a terrestrial planet in the habitable zone of its star, of which we could study the atmosphere.”

• July 16, 2021: A team of astronomers has released new observations of nearby galaxies that resemble colorful cosmic fireworks. The images, obtained with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), show different components of the galaxies in distinct colors, allowing astronomers to pinpoint the locations of young stars and the gas they warm up around them. By combining these new observations with data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, the team is helping shed new light on what triggers gas to form stars. 20)

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Figure 12: This image combines observations of the nearby galaxies NGC 1300, NGC 1087, NGC 3627 (top, from left to right), NGC 4254 and NGC 4303 (bottom, from left to right) taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). Each individual image is a combination of observations conducted at different wavelengths of light to map stellar populations and warm gas. The golden glows mainly correspond to clouds of ionized hydrogen, oxygen and sulphur gas, marking the presence of newly born stars, while the bluish regions in the background reveal the distribution of slightly older stars. -The images were taken as part of the Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS (PHANGS) project, which is making high-resolution observations of nearby galaxies with telescopes operating across the electromagnetic spectrum (image credit: ESO/PHANGS)

- Astronomers know that stars are born in clouds of gas, but what sets off star formation, and how galaxies as a whole play into it, remains a mystery. To understand this process, a team of researchers has observed various nearby galaxies with powerful telescopes on the ground and in space, scanning the different galactic regions involved in stellar births.

- “For the first time we are resolving individual units of star formation over a wide range of locations and environments in a sample that well represents the different types of galaxies,” says Eric Emsellem, an astronomer at ESO in Germany and lead of the VLT-based observations conducted as part of the PHANGS (Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS) project. “We can directly observe the gas that gives birth to stars, we see the young stars themselves, and we witness their evolution through various phases.”

- Emsellem, who is also affiliated with the University of Lyon, France, and his team have now released their latest set of galactic scans, taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument on ESO’s VLT in the Atacama Desert in Chile. They used MUSE to trace newborn stars and the warm gas around them, which is illuminated and heated up by the stars and acts as a smoking gun of ongoing star formation.

- The new MUSE images are now being combined with observations of the same galaxies taken with ALMA and released earlier this year. ALMA, which is also located in Chile, is especially well suited to mapping cold gas clouds — the parts of galaxies that provide the raw material out of which stars form.

- By combining MUSE and ALMA images astronomers can examine the galactic regions where star formation is happening, compared to where it is expected to happen, so as to better understand what triggers, boosts or holds back the birth of new stars. The resulting images are stunning, offering a spectacularly colorful insight into stellar nurseries in our neighboring galaxies.

- “There are many mysteries we want to unravel,” says Kathryn Kreckel from the University of Heidelberg in Germany and PHANGS team member. “Are stars more often born in specific regions of their host galaxies — and, if so, why? And after stars are born how does their evolution influence the formation of new generations of stars?”

- Astronomers will now be able to answer these questions thanks to the wealth of MUSE and ALMA data the PHANGS team have obtained. MUSE collects spectra — the “bar codes” astronomers scan to unveil the properties and nature of cosmic objects — at every single location within its field of view, thus providing much richer information than traditional instruments. For the PHANGS project, MUSE observed 30 000 nebulae of warm gas and collected about 15 million spectra of different galactic regions. The ALMA observations, on the other hand, allowed astronomers to map around 100 000 cold-gas regions across 90 nearby galaxies, producing an unprecedentedly sharp atlas of stellar nurseries in the close Universe.

- In addition to ALMA and MUSE, the PHANGS project also features observations from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The various observatories were selected to allow the team to scan our galactic neighbors at different wavelengths (visible, near-infrared and radio), with each wavelength range unveiling distinct parts of the observed galaxies. “Their combination allows us to probe the various stages of stellar birth — from the formation of the stellar nurseries to the onset of star formation itself and the final destruction of the nurseries by the newly born stars — in more detail than is possible with individual observations,” says PHANGS team member Francesco Belfiore from INAF-Arcetri in Florence, Italy. "PHANGS is the first time we have been able to assemble such a complete view, taking images sharp enough to see the individual clouds, stars, and nebulae that signify forming stars."

- The work carried out by the PHANGS project will be further honed by upcoming telescopes and instruments, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The data obtained in this way will lay further groundwork for observations with ESO’s future Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), which will start operating later this decade and will enable an even more detailed look at the structures of stellar nurseries.

- “As amazing as PHANGS is, the resolution of the maps that we produce is just sufficient to identify and separate individual star-forming clouds, but not good enough to see what’s happening inside them in detail,” pointed out Eva Schinnerer, a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany and principal investigator of the PHANGS project, under which the new observations were conducted. “New observational efforts by our team and others are pushing the boundary in this direction, so we have decades of exciting discoveries ahead of us.”

More information

- The international PHANGS team is composed of over 90 scientists ranging from Master students to retirees working at 30 institutions across four continents. The MUSE data reduction working group within PHANGS is being led by Eric Emsellem (European Southern Observatory, Garching, Germany and Centre de Recherche Astrophysique de Lyon, Université de Lyon, ENS de Lyon, Saint-Genis Laval, France) and includes Francesco Belfiore (INAF Osservatorio Astrofisico di Arcetri, Florence, Italy), Guillermo Blanc (Carnegie Observatories, Pasadena, US), Enrico Congiu (Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile and Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution for Science, Atacama Region, Chile), Brent Groves (The University of Western Australia, Perth, Australia), I-Ting Ho (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg, Germany [MPIA]), Kathryn Kreckel (Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany), Rebecca McElroy (Sydney Institute for Astronomy, Sydney, Australia), Ismael Pessa (MPIA), Patricia Sanchez-Blazquez (Complutense University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain), Francesco Santoro (MPIA), Fabian Scheuermann (Heidelberg University, Heidelberg, Germany) and Eva Schinnerer (MPIA).

- Go to the ESO public image archive to see a sample of PHANGS images.

• July 14, 2021: An international team of astronomers have become the first in the world to detect isotopes in the atmosphere of an exoplanet. It concerns different forms of carbon in the gaseous giant planet TYC 8998-760-1 b at a distance of 300 light years in the constellation Musca (Fly). The weak signal was measured with ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile and seems to indicate that the planet is relatively rich in carbon-13. The astronomers speculate that this is because the planet formed at a great distance from its parent star. The research will be published in the scientific journal Nature on Thursday. 21)

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Figure 13: Cartoon about the discovery of carbon-13 in the atmosphere of an exoplanet [image credit: Daniëlle Futselaar (Artsource)]

- Isotopes are different forms of the same atom, but with varying number of neutrons in the nucleus. For example, carbon with six protons typically has six neutrons (carbon-12), but occasionally seven (carbon-13) or eight (carbon-14). This does not change much the chemical properties of carbon, but isotopes are formed in different ways and often react slightly differently to the prevailing conditions. Isotopes are therefore used in a wide range of research fields: from detecting cardiovascular disease or cancer to studying climate change and determining the age of fossils and rocks.

Quite special

- The astronomers were able to distinguish carbon-13 from carbon-12 because it absorbs radiation at slightly different colors. "It is really quite special that we can measure this in an exoplanet atmosphere, at such a large distance," says Leiden PhD student Yapeng Zhang, first author of the article.

- The astronomers had expected to detect about one in 70 carbon atoms to be carbon-13, but for this planet it seems to be twice as much. The idea is that the higher carbon-13 is somehow related to the formation of the exoplanet.

- Co-author Paul Mollière, from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, explains: "The planet is more than one hundred and fifty times further away from its parent star than our Earth is from our Sun. At such a great distance, ices have possibly formed with more carbon-13, causing the higher fraction of this isotope in the planet’s atmosphere today."

Figure 14: Isotopes In Exoplanets Explained. Twelve-year-old Kevin explains about isotopes in the atmosphere of an exoplanets, now measured by astronomers for the first time. What does this mean? What do we learn? Based on “The 13CO-rich atmosphere of a young accreting super-Jupiter” by Yapeng Zhang et al., Nature - July 2021 (video credit: Astronomie.nl) 22)

'My exoplanet'

- The planet itself, TYC 8998-760-1 b, was discovered only two years ago by Leiden PhD student Alexander Bohn, co-author of the article. "It' s awesome that this discovery has been made close to 'my' planet. It will probably be the first of many."

- Ignas Snellen, professor in Leiden and for many years the driving force behind this subject, is above all proud. "The expectation is that in the future isotopes will further help to understand exactly how, where and when planets form. This is just the beginning."

• June 16, 2021: When Betelgeuse, a bright orange star in the constellation of Orion, became visibly darker in late 2019 and early 2020, the astronomy community was puzzled. A team of astronomers have now published new images of the star’s surface, taken using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), that clearly show how its brightness changed. The new research reveals that the star was partially concealed by a cloud of dust, a discovery that solves the mystery of the “Great Dimming” of Betelgeuse. 23)

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Figure 15: Betelgeuse’s surface before and during its 2019–2020 Great Dimming. These images, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, show the surface of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse during its unprecedented dimming, which happened in late 2019 and early 2020. The image on the far left, taken in January 2019, shows the star at its normal brightness, while the remaining images, from December 2019, January 2020 and March 2020, were all taken when the star’s brightness had noticeably dropped, especially in its southern region. The brightness returned to normal in April 2020 (image credit: ESO/M. Montargès et al.)

- Betelgeuse’s dip in brightness — a change noticeable even to the naked eye — led Miguel Montargès and his team to point ESO’s VLT towards the star in late 2019. An image from December 2019, when compared to an earlier image taken in January of the same year, showed that the stellar surface was significantly darker, especially in the southern region. But the astronomers weren’t sure why.

- The team continued observing the star during its Great Dimming, capturing two other never-before-seen images in January 2020 and March 2020. By April 2020, the star had returned to its normal brightness.

- “For once, we were seeing the appearance of a star changing in real time on a scale of weeks,” says Montargès, from the Observatoire de Paris, France, and KU Leuven, Belgium. The images now published are the only ones we have that show Betelgeuse’s surface changing in brightness over time.

- In their new study, published today in Nature, the team revealed that the mysterious dimming was caused by a dusty veil shading the star, which in turn was the result of a drop in temperature on Betelgeuse’s stellar surface.

- Betelgeuse’s surface regularly changes as giant bubbles of gas move, shrink and swell within the star. The team concludes that some time before the Great Dimming, the star ejected a large gas bubble that moved away from it. When a patch of the surface cooled down shortly after, that temperature decrease was enough for the gas to condense into solid dust.

- “We have directly witnessed the formation of so-called stardust,” says Montargès, whose study provides evidence that dust formation can occur very quickly and close to a star’s surface. “The dust expelled from cool evolved stars, such as the ejection we’ve just witnessed, could go on to become the building blocks of terrestrial planets and life,” adds Emily Cannon, from KU Leuven, who was also involved in the study.

- Rather than just the result of a dusty outburst, there was some speculation online that Betelgeuse’s drop in brightness could signal its imminent death in a spectacular supernova explosion. A supernova hasn’t been observed in our galaxy since the 17th century, so present-day astronomers aren’t entirely sure what to expect from a star in the lead-up to such an event. However, this new research confirms that Betelgeuse's Great Dimming was not an early sign that the star was heading towards its dramatic fate.

- Witnessing the dimming of such a recognizable star was exciting for professional and amateur astronomers alike, as summed up by Cannon: “Looking up at the stars at night, these tiny, twinkling dots of light seem perpetual. The dimming of Betelgeuse breaks this illusion.”

- The team used the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument on ESO’s VLT to directly image the surface of Betelgeuse, alongside data from the GRAVITY instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI), to monitor the star throughout the dimming. The telescopes, located at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert, were a “vital diagnostic tool in uncovering the cause of this dimming event,” says Cannon. “We were able to observe the star not just as a point but could resolve the details of its surface and monitor it throughout the event,” Montargès adds.

- Montargès and Cannon are looking forward to what the future of astronomy, in particular what ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), will bring to their study of Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star. “With the ability to reach unparalleled spatial resolutions, the ELT will enable us to directly image Betelgeuse in remarkable detail,” says Cannon. “It will also significantly expand the sample of red supergiants for which we can resolve the surface through direct imaging, further helping us to unravel the mysteries behind the winds of these massive stars.”

- This research was presented in the paper “A dusty veil shading Betelgeuse during its Great Dimming” to appear in Nature.

• May 19, 2021: A new study by a Belgian team using data from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) has shown that iron and nickel exist in the atmospheres of comets throughout our Solar System, even those far from the Sun. A separate study by a Polish team, who also used ESO data, reported that nickel vapor is also present in the icy interstellar comet 2I/Borisov. This is the first time heavy metals, usually associated with hot environments, have been found in the cold atmospheres of distant comets. 24)

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Figure 16: The detection of the heavy metals iron (Fe) and nickel (Ni) in the fuzzy atmosphere of a comet are illustrated in this image, which features the spectrum of light of C/2016 R2 (PANSTARRS) on the top left superimposed to a real image of the comet taken with the SPECULOOS telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory. Each white peak in the spectrum represents a different element, with those for iron and nickel indicated by blue and orange dashes, respectively. Spectra like these are possible thanks to the UVES instrument on ESO’s VLT, a high-resolution spectrograph that spreads the line so much they can be individually identified. In addition, UVES remains sensitive down to wavelengths of 300nm. Most of the important iron and nickel lines appear at wavelengths of around 350nm, meaning that the capabilities of UVES were essential in making this discovery. (image credit: ESO/L. Calçada, SPECULOOS Team/E. Jehin, Manfroid et al.)

- “It was a big surprise to detect iron and nickel atoms in the atmosphere of all the comets we have observed in the last two decades, about 20 of them, and even in ones far from the Sun in the cold space environment," says Jean Manfroid from the University of Liège, Belgium, who lead the new study on Solar System comets published today in Nature. 25)

- Astronomers know that heavy metals exist in comets’ dusty and rocky interiors. But, because solid metals don’t usually “sublimate” (become gaseous) at low temperatures, they did not expect to find them in the atmospheres of cold comets that travel far from the Sun. Nickel and iron vapors have now even been detected in comets observed at more than 480 million kilometers from the Sun, more than three times the Earth-Sun distance.

- The Belgian team found iron and nickel in comets’ atmospheres in approximately equal amounts. Material in our Solar System, for example that found in the Sun and in meteorites, usually contains about ten times more iron than nickel. This new result therefore has implications for astronomers’ understanding of the early Solar System, though the team is still decoding what these are.

- “Comets formed around 4.6 billion years ago, in the very young Solar System, and haven’t changed since that time. In that sense, they’re like fossils for astronomers,” says study co-author Emmanuel Jehin, also from the University of Liège.

- While the Belgian team has been studying these “fossil” objects with ESO’s VLT for nearly 20 years, they had not spotted the presence of nickel and iron in their atmospheres until now. “This discovery went under the radar for many years,” Jehin says.

- The team used data from the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) instrument on ESO’s VLT, which uses a technique called spectroscopy, to analyze the atmospheres of comets at different distances from the Sun. This technique allows astronomers to reveal the chemical makeup of cosmic objects: each chemical element leaves a unique signature — a set of lines — in the spectrum of the light from the objects.

- The Belgian team had spotted weak, unidentified spectral lines in their UVES data and on closer inspection noticed that they were signalling the presence of neutral atoms of iron and nickel. A reason why the heavy elements were difficult to identify is that they exist in very small amounts: the team estimates that for each 100 kg of water in the comets’ atmospheres there is only 1 g of iron, and about the same amount of nickel.

- “Usually there is 10 times more iron than nickel, and in those comet atmospheres we found about the same quantity for both elements. We came to the conclusion they might come from a special kind of material on the surface of the comet nucleus, sublimating at a rather low temperature and releasing iron and nickel in about the same proportions,” explains Damien Hutsemékers, also a member of the Belgian team from the University of Liège.

- Although the team aren’t sure yet what material this might be, advances in astronomy — such as the Mid-infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph (METIS) on ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) — will allow researchers to confirm the source of the iron and nickel atoms found in the atmospheres of these comets.

- The Belgian team hope their study will pave the way for future research. “Now people will search for those lines in their archival data from other telescopes,” Jehin says. “We think this will also trigger new work on the subject.”

• March 30, 2021: New observations with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) indicate that the rogue comet 2I/Borisov, which is only the second and most recently detected interstellar visitor to our Solar System, is one of the most pristine ever observed. Astronomers suspect that the comet most likely never passed close to a star, making it an undisturbed relic of the cloud of gas and dust it formed from. 26)

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Figure 17: This image was taken with the FORS2 instrument on ESO’s VLT in late 2019, when comet 2I/Borisov passed near the Sun. Since the comet was travelling at breakneck speed, around 175,000 km/hr, the background stars appeared as streaks of light as the telescope followed the comet’s trajectory. The colors in these streaks give the image some disco flair and are the result of combining observations in different wavelength bands, highlighted by the various colors in this composite image (image credit: ESO, O. Hainaut)

- 2I/Borisov was discovered by amateur astronomer Gennady Borisov in August 2019 and was confirmed to have come from beyond the Solar System a few weeks later. “2I/Borisov could represent the first truly pristine comet ever observed,” says Stefano Bagnulo of the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium, Northern Ireland, UK, who led the new study published today in Nature Communications. The team believes that the comet had never passed close to any star before it flew by the Sun in 2019.

- Bagnulo and his colleagues used the FORS2 instrument on ESO's VLT, located in northern Chile, to study 2I/Borisov in detail using a technique called polarimetry. Since this technique is regularly used to study comets and other small bodies of our Solar System, this allowed the team to compare the interstellar visitor with our local comets.

- The team found that 2I/Borisov has polarimetric properties distinct from those of Solar System comets, with the exception of Hale–Bopp. Comet Hale–Bopp received much public interest in the late 1990s as a result of being easily visible to the naked eye, and also because it was one of the most pristine comets astronomers had ever seen. Prior to its most recent passage, Hale–Bopp is thought to have passed by our Sun only once and had therefore barely been affected by solar wind and radiation. This means it was pristine, having a composition very similar to that of the cloud of gas and dust it — and the rest of the Solar System — formed from some 4.5 billion years ago.

- By analyzing the polarization together with the color of the comet to gather clues on its composition, the team concluded that 2I/Borisov is in fact even more pristine than Hale–Bopp. This means it carries untarnished signatures of the cloud of gas and dust it formed from.

- “The fact that the two comets are remarkably similar suggests that the environment in which 2I/Borisov originated is not so different in composition from the environment in the early Solar System,” says Alberto Cellino, a co-author of the study, from the Astrophysical Observatory of Torino, National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF), Italy.

- Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at ESO in Germany who studies comets and other near-Earth objects but was not involved in this new study, agrees. “The main result — that 2I/Borisov is not like any other comet except Hale–Bopp — is very strong,” he says, adding that “it is very plausible they formed in very similar conditions.”

- “The arrival of 2I/Borisov from interstellar space represented the first opportunity to study the composition of a comet from another planetary system and check if the material that comes from this comet is somehow different from our native variety,” explains Ludmilla Kolokolova, of the University of Maryland in the US, who was involved in the Nature Communications research.

- Bagnulo hopes astronomers will have another, even better, opportunity to study a rogue comet in detail before the end of the decade. “ESA is planning to launch Comet Interceptor in 2029, which will have the capability of reaching another visiting interstellar object, if one on a suitable trajectory is discovered,” he says, referring to an upcoming mission by the European Space Agency.

An origin story hidden in the dust

- Even without a space mission, astronomers can use Earth’s many telescopes to gain insight into the different properties of rogue comets like 2I/Borisov. “Imagine how lucky we were that a comet from a system light-years away simply took a trip to our doorstep by chance,” says Bin Yang, an astronomer at ESO in Chile, who also took advantage of 2I/Borisov’s passage through our Solar System to study this mysterious comet. Her team’s results are published in Nature Astronomy. 27) 28)

- Yang and her team used data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, as well as from ESO’s VLT, to study 2I/Borisov’s dust grains to gather clues about the comet’s birth and conditions in its home system.

- They discovered that 2I/Borisov’s coma — an envelope of dust surrounding the main body of the comet — contains compact pebbles, grains about one millimeter in size or larger. In addition, they found that the relative amounts of carbon monoxide and water in the comet changed drastically as it neared the Sun. The team, which also includes Olivier Hainaut, says this indicates that the comet is made up of materials that formed in different places in its planetary system.

- The observations by Yang and her team suggest that matter in 2I/Borisov’s planetary home was mixed from near its star to further out, perhaps because of the existence of giant planets, whose strong gravity stirs material in the system. Astronomers believe that a similar process occurred early in the life of our Solar System.

- While 2I/Borisov was the first rogue comet to pass by the Sun, it was not the first interstellar visitor. The first interstellar object to have been observed passing by our Solar System was 'Oumuamua, another object studied with ESO’s VLT back in 2017. Originally classified as a comet, 'Oumuamua was later reclassified as an asteroid as it lacked a coma.

• March 8, 2021: With the help of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT), astronomers have discovered and studied in detail the most distant source of radio emission known to date. The source is a “radio-loud” quasar — a bright object with powerful jets emitting at radio wavelengths — that is so far away its light has taken 13 billion years to reach us. The discovery could provide important clues to help astronomers understand the early Universe. 29)

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Figure 18: This artist’s impression shows how the distant quasar P172+18 and its radio jets may have looked. To date (early 2021), this is the most distant quasar with radio jets ever found and it was studied with the help of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. It is so distant that light from it has travelled for about 13 billion years to reach us: we see it as it was when the Universe was only about 780 million years old (image credit: ESO, M. Kornmesser)

- Quasars are very bright objects that lie at the centre of some galaxies and are powered by supermassive black holes. As the black hole consumes the surrounding gas, energy is released, allowing astronomers to spot them even when they are very far away.

- The newly discovered quasar, nicknamed P172+18, is so distant that light from it has travelled for about 13 billion years to reach us: we see it as it was when the Universe was just around 780 million years old. While more distant quasars have been discovered, this is the first time astronomers have been able to identify the telltale signatures of radio jets in a quasar this early on in the history of the Universe. Only about 10% of quasars — which astronomers classify as “radio-loud” — have jets, which shine brightly at radio frequencies [1].
Notes: [1] Radio waves that are used in astronomy have frequencies between about 300 MHz and 300 GHz.

- P172+18 is powered by a black hole about 300 million times more massive than our Sun that is consuming gas at a stunning rate. “The black hole is eating up matter very rapidly, growing in mass at one of the highest rates ever observed,” explains astronomer Chiara Mazzucchelli, Fellow at ESO in Chile, who led the discovery together with Eduardo Bañados of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany.

- The astronomers think that there’s a link between the rapid growth of supermassive black holes and the powerful radio jets spotted in quasars like P172+18. The jets are thought to be capable of disturbing the gas around the black hole, increasing the rate at which gas falls in. Therefore, studying radio-loud quasars can provide important insights into how black holes in the early Universe grew to their supermassive sizes so quickly after the Big Bang.

- “I find it very exciting to discover ‘new’ black holes for the first time, and to provide one more building block to understand the primordial Universe, where we come from, and ultimately ourselves,” says Mazzucchelli.

- P172+18 was first recognized as a far-away quasar, after having been previously identified as a radio source, at the Magellan Telescope at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile by Bañados and Mazzucchelli. “As soon as we got the data, we inspected it by eye, and we knew immediately that we had discovered the most distant radio-loud quasar known so far,” says Bañados.

- However, owing to a short observation time, the team did not have enough data to study the object in detail. A flurry of observations with other telescopes followed, including with the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s VLT, which allowed them to dig deeper into the characteristics of this quasar, including determining key properties such as the mass of the black hole and how fast it’s eating up matter from its surroundings. Other telescopes that contributed to the study include the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array and the Keck Telescope in the US.

- While the team are excited about their discovery, to appear in The Astrophysical Journal, they believe this radio-loud quasar could be the first of many to be found, perhaps at even larger cosmological distances. “This discovery makes me optimistic and I believe — and hope — that the distance record will be broken soon,” says Bañados. 30)

- Observations with facilities such as ALMA, in which ESO is a partner, and with ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) could help uncover and study more of these early-Universe objects in detail.

• March 2, 2021: The European Astronomical Society (EAS) awards the 2021 Tycho Brahe Medal to Dr Frank Eisenhauer (Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, MPE) for his leadership of the SINFONI and GRAVITY instruments on the ESO VLT, which revolutionized the study of exoplanets, supermassive black holes, and star forming galaxies in the early universe. Both SINFONI and GRAVITY are part of the instrument suite employed in the discovery and characterization of the Galactic Center Black Hole, which led to the Nobel Prize 2020 in Physics. 31)

- Over the last 20 years, Frank Eisenhauer and the MPE team developed two major, game-changing instruments for ground-based infrared astronomy, SINFONI and GRAVITY.

- SINFONI revolutionized the spectroscopy of stars close to the Galactic Center black hole and the kinematic studies of galaxies at the peak of galaxy formation a few billion years after the Big Bang. It consists of an integral field spectrometer coupled to an adaptive optics system. Integral filed spectroscopy is a technique to simultaneously record an image and the spectrum for every pixel of the image, and adaptive optics corrects the blurring due to the Earth’s atmosphere. The development of SINFONI catapulted integral-field units to the leading design choice of imaging spectroscopy for all large telescopes, including also the ESO-ELT, a 40 m-class telescope currently under construction.

- The next major technological breakthrough came with GRAVITY, which combines the light of all four VLT telescopes interferometrically. This allows astronomers to use the four telescopes simultaneously as a virtual 130m telescope achieving milli-arcsecond resolution – sharp enough to detect houses on the moon, if there were any.

- After a mere three years of science operation, GRAVITY has already provided several breakthroughs: Combining GRAVITY astrometry and SINFONI spectroscopy, the team was able to measure the gravitational redshift and relativistic precession in the orbit of the star S2 around the Galactic Center black hole SgrA*. The astronomers also used GRAVITY to observe gas swirl at around 30% the speed of light close to the innermost stable orbit around SgrA*. This provides very strong support that SgrA* indeed is a massive black hole. GRAVITY can also look outside our home galaxy: in the quasar 3C273, at a distance of ca. 1.4 billion light years, the instrument directly measured the rotation of the Broad Line Region, a set of clouds rotating around the black hole in the center of this galaxy. Further, GRAVITY can zoom onto exoplanets around nearby stars, and for example, could reveal the details of an exoplanet's atmosphere in the constellation of Pegasus.

- With the Tycho Brahe Medal, which is awarded in recognition of the development or exploitation of European instruments or major discoveries based largely on such instruments, the EAS recognizes that Frank Eisenhauer was the leader and driver in the design and development of these complex and innovative instruments and has been a key figure in their scientific exploitation. Frank Eisenhauer studied physics at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and obtained his PhD in 1998 from the Ludwig Maximilian University Munich. He is currently a Senior Research Scientist at MPE and Adjunct Teaching Professor at TUM. From 1998-2004 Dr Eisenhauer was leading the development on the world’s first adaptive optics assisted integral field spectrometer on an 8m-class telescope, SINFONI. He then became the leader of the GRAVITY instrument to combine the light from the four 8m VLT telescopes, which is operated at the VLT since 2016. The instrument is currently further developed into GRAVITY+, enhancing its capabilities and sensitivity. The leader of this project is again Dr Eisenhauer.

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Figure 19: This collage shows some of the results obtained with GRAVITY in its first three years of observation showing the wide range of possible applications (image credit: ESA, MPE)

• February 17, 2021: An international research team with members from ETH Zürich has developed a new method for directly imaging smaller planets in the habitable zone of a neighboring star system. This opens up new possibilities in the search for extraterrestrial life. 32)

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Figure 20: Alpha Centauri A (left) and Alpha Centauri B are located in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur), at a distance of 4.3 light-years. The star pair orbits a common center of gravity once every 80 years (image credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble)

- In the search for planets capable of sustaining life, an international research team with members from ETH has taken a significant step forward. As the researchers reported recently in the journal Nature Communications, they found signs of a Neptune-sized planet in the Alpha Centauri star system, a mere 4.4 light years away from Earth. This exoplanet is located in a zone that may offer suitable conditions for life. The team was able to collect data with unprecedented sensitivity, thus registering even very weak signals. 33)

Earth is a disruptive factor

- Thanks to the new process, the researchers have advanced one step closer to a major goal of exoplanet research: the discovery of Earth-like planets capable of supporting life. Direct imaging of planets delivers information about the composition of their atmospheres and possibly even signs of life. To date, however, direct measurements have mostly found exoplanets that are larger than Jupiter and orbit far away from very young host stars. In other words, these planets fall outside the habitable zone where liquid water could form.

- One reason that the search for Earth-like planets has so far proved fruitless is that it has been conducted in the near-infrared range, even though Earth-like planets that might have water are brightest in the mid-infrared range. Yet it is precisely in that range that measurements with normal telescopes are difficult, because that is where the Earth and its atmosphere are also at their brightest. This means the faint signals from exoplanets are lost in particularly strong background noise.

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Figure 21: To the naked eye, Alpha Centauri is a single bright star. But it is actually made up of a pair of binary stars, Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B, plus the faint red dwarf Alpha Centauri C, Proxima Centauri (image credit: Yuri Beletsky/LCO/ESO)

100 hours of observations

- As reported in their study, the researchers have now been able to overcome this difficulty and take measurements in the mid-infrared range. They used the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile to examine Alpha Centauri stars A and B, logging nearly 100 hours over the course of a month. “Keeping the telescope pointed at the same star for such a long time is highly unusual,” explains Anna Boehle, a postdoc in ETH Professor Sascha Quanz’s group. As second author of the study, Boehle was heavily involved in evaluating the data. “We assessed more than five million images,” she says.

- To be able to detect the faint signals from potential planets, the researchers not only processed a huge volume of data, they also employed two sophisticated measurement techniques: one was to use a new deformable secondary telescope mirror, which made it possible to correct for distortions in the light coming through the Earth’s atmosphere; and the other was to use a coronagraph to alternately block the light from each of the stars in turn at very short intervals. This let the scientists further reduce signal noise while examining the surroundings of both stars.

Figure 22: Imaging habitable-zone exoplanets around Alpha Centauri (video credit: Kevin Wagner)

Signs of a planet

- “Our findings indicate that in principle, this process enables us to discover smaller terrestrial planets capable of hosting life,” Boehle explains, “and it represents a clear improvement over previous observation methods.” Indeed, in their data the researchers found a light signal that may originate from a Neptune-sized planet. Boehle says, “Whether or not this signal is actually from a planet requires further study. To that end, we plan to combine the infrared measurements with other measurement methods."

• January 12, 2021: An international team led by Dutch astronomers has, after years of searching and defying the boundaries of a telescope, for the first time directly captured polarized light from an exoplanet. They can deduct from the light that a disk of dust and gas is orbiting around the exoplanet in which moons are possibly forming. The researchers will soon publish their findings in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. 34)

- The discovery concerns the exoplanet DH Tau b. This is a very young planet of only 2 million years old at 437 light years from Earth in the constellation Taurus. Exoplanet DH Tau b does not resemble our Earth. The planet is at least eleven times more massive than Jupiter, the most massive planet in our solar system. The planet is also located ten times further away from its star than our furthest planet Neptune. The planet is still glowing after its formation. As a result, it emits heat in the form of infrared radiation.

- The researchers discovered that the infrared radiation of the planet is polarized. This means that the light waves vibrate in a preferential direction. And that, according to the researchers, is because the infrared radiation of the planet is scattered by a disk of dust and gas that orbits the planet. In such a disk, moons may form.

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Figure 23: Three images of the exoplanet DH Tau b. The left image shows all light, both unpolarized and polarized. The middle image shows only polarized light. The right image additionally shows the direction of the polarized light. In polarized light the planet DH Tau b is visible, which points to a disk of dust and gas around this planet. The disk around the star is also visible (image credit: ESO/VLT/SPHERE/Van Holstein et al.)

- Furthermore, the disk around the planet appears to have a different orientation from the disk around the star. Such a tilted disk indicates that the planet has likely formed at a large distance from the star. This is contrary to the theory that planets are formed close to their star and then migrate outward.

- For the observations, the astronomers used the SPHERE instrument on the VLT (Very Large Telescope) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. This instrument can, among other things, block the overwhelming light of the associated star and determine the polarization of the remaining light.

- First author and research leader Rob van Holstein (Leiden University, the Netherlands) has been working with the SPHERE instrument since his university study in 2014: "Because we fully understood the instrument, we were able to make it perform better than it was designed for. In the end, we were able to capture the light from twenty exoplanets, one of which had polarized light."

- Co-author Frans Snik (Leiden University) has been trying to capture polarized light from planets since 2012: "It's already very special that we can see a planet separated from the star around which it orbits. And now we can also deduce that material is orbiting this planet as well, and that this material does so at a completely different angle than the disk that orbits the star. This gives us unique insights into how such a planet and possible moons are formed." 35)

- In the future, the researchers aim to carry out similar research on the ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) that is under construction. This telescope should make it possible to study the light of rocky, Earth-like planets. From the polarization of the light it will be possible to obtain more information about the atmosphere of such planets and whether there are possible signs of life.

• September 3, 2020: A team of astronomers have identified the first direct evidence that groups of stars can tear apart their planet-forming disc, leaving it warped and with tilted rings. This new research suggests exotic planets, not unlike Tatooine in Star Wars, may form in inclined rings in bent discs around multiple stars. The results were made possible thanks to observations with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA). 36)

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Figure 24: ALMA and the Sphere instrument on the VLT have imaged GW Orionis, a triple star system with a peculiar inner region. The new observations revealed that this object has a warped planet-forming disc with a misaligned ring. In particular, the SPHERE image (right panel) allowed astronomers to see, for the first time, the shadow that this ring casts on the rest of the disc. This helped them figure out the 3D shape of the ring and the overall disc. The left panel shows an artistic impression of the inner region of the disc, including the ring, which is based on the 3D shape reconstructed by the team (image credit: ESO, L. Calçada, Exeter/Kraus, et al.)

- Our Solar System is remarkably flat, with the planets all orbiting in the same plane. But this is not always the case, especially for planet-forming discs around multiple stars, like the object of the new study: GW Orionis. This system, located just over 1300 light-years away in the constellation of Orion, has three stars and a deformed, broken-apart disc surrounding them.

- “Our images reveal an extreme case where the disc is not flat at all, but is warped and has a misaligned ring that has broken away from the disc,” says Stefan Kraus, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Exeter in the UK who led the research published today in the journal Science. The misaligned ring is located in the inner part of the disc, close to the three stars. 37)

- The new research also reveals that this inner ring contains 30 Earth-masses of dust, which could be enough to form planets. “Any planets formed within the misaligned ring will orbit the star on highly oblique orbits and we predict that many planets on oblique, wide-separation orbits will be discovered in future planet imaging campaigns, for instance with the ELT,” says team member Alexander Kreplin of the University of Exeter, referring to ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, which is planned to start operating later this decade. Since more than half the stars in the sky are born with one or more companions, this raises an exciting prospect: there could be an unknown population of exoplanets that orbit their stars on very inclined and distant orbits.

- To reach these conclusions, the team observed GW Orionis for over 11 years. Starting in 2008, they used the AMBER and later the GRAVITY instruments on ESO’s VLT Interferometer in Chile, which combines the light from different VLT telescopes, to study the gravitational dance of the three stars in the system and map their orbits. “We found that the three stars do not orbit in the same plane, but their orbits are misaligned with respect to each other and with respect to the disc,” says Alison Young of the Universities of Exeter and Leicester and a member of the team.

- They also observed the system with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s VLT and with ALMA, in which ESO is a partner, and were able to image the inner ring and confirm its misalignment. ESO’s SPHERE also allowed them to see, for the first time, the shadow that this ring casts on the rest of the disc. This helped them figure out the 3D shape of the ring and the overall disc.

- The international team, which includes researchers from the UK, Belgium, Chile, France and the US, then combined their exhaustive observations with computer simulations to understand what had happened to the system. For the first time, they were able to clearly link the observed misalignments to the theoretical “disc-tearing effect”, which suggests that the conflicting gravitational pull of stars in different planes can warp and break their discs.

- Their simulations showed that the misalignment in the orbits of the three stars could cause the disc around them to break into distinct rings, which is exactly what they see in their observations. The observed shape of the inner ring also matches predictions from numerical simulations on how the disc would tear.

- Interestingly, another team who studied the same system using ALMA believe another ingredient is needed to understand the system. “We think that the presence of a planet between these rings is needed to explain why the disc tore apart,” says Jiaqing Bi of the University of Victoria in Canada who led a study of GW Orionis published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters in May this year. His team identified three dust rings in the ALMA observations, with the outermost ring being the largest ever observed in planet-forming discs.

- Future observations with ESO’s ELT and other telescopes may help astronomers fully unravel the nature of GW Orionis and reveal young planets forming around its three stars.

• August 28, 2020: A team including researchers from the Institute for Astrophysics of the University of Cologne has for the first time directly observed the columns of matter that build up newborn stars. This was observed in the young star TW Hydrae system located approximately 163 light years from Earth. This result was obtained with the VLTI (Very Large Telescope Interferometer) and its GRAVITY instrument of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. The article 'A measure of the size of the magnetospheric accretion region in TW Hydrae' has been published in a recent issue of Nature. 38) 39)

- The formation of stars in the Galaxy involves processes in which primordial matter such as gas and dust present in the giant molecular clouds is rapidly aggregated via gravity to form a protostar. This 'accretion' of gas occurs through the disk that forms around the newborn star and represents the major mechanism of supply of material to the growing central baby star. These so-called protoplanetary disks are one of the key ingredients to explain the formation of very diverse exoplanets that are to date frequently discovered orbiting our closest neighbors.

- Based on theoretical and observational evidence, many scenarios were hypothesized to describe the mechanism of interaction between the star and the parent circumstellar disk, like for instance the funnelling and accretion of host gas onto the central star along the local magnetic field. But this could never be directly observed and proven so far with any telescope. The main reason is that the level of details of the image - astronomers talk about angular resolution - necessary to observe what happens very close to the star was simply out of reach. For comparison, detecting these events would be like discerning a small one-cubic meter box on the surface of the Moon. With a normal telescope, this is not possible. However, with an interferometer like the VLTI in Chile and its instrument GRAVITY, which delivers unprecedented angular resolution in the infrared, such a precise observation has now become possible. An interferometer collects and combines the light from different telescopes a few hundred meters apart, which provides the same level of accuracy as a hypothetical giant telescope with a comparable diameter.

- With the contribution of members of Cologne's Institute for Astrophysics, astrophysicists from several European institutions exploited the GRAVITY instrument at the VLTI to probe the closest regions around the young solar analog TW Hydrae, which is thought to be the most representative example of what our Sun may have looked like at the time of its formation, more than 5 billion years ago. By measuring very precisely the typical angular size of the very inner gaseous regions - using a particular infrared atomic transition of the hot hydrogen gas - the scientists were able to directly prove that the hot gas emission was indeed resulting from magnetospheric accretion taking place very close to the stellar surface. 'This is an important milestone in our attempt to confirm the mechanisms at work in the field of star formation', said Professor Lucas Labadie, co-author of the paper. 'We now want to extend such exploration to other young stars of different nature to understand how the evolution of the circumstellar disk, the birthplace of planets, goes.'

- The team is part of the GRAVITY collaboration, named after the instrument that was co-developed by the University of Cologne and which combines interferometrically the four large VLT 8-m telescopes of ESO in Chile. The team members include Lucas Labadie, Rebekka Grellmann, Andreas Eckart, Matthew Horrobin, Christian Straubmeier and Michael Wiest. 'This result illustrates what is the unique potential of interferometry at the VLTI', added Dr Christian Straubmeier, team member and co-investigator of the GRAVITY instrument in Cologne. 'This is why we decided to look ahead and develop the upgrade GRAVITY+ in the hope of being able to observe and image even fainter objects than what GRAVITY currently does.'

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Figure 25: Artist's Impression of the Streams of Hot Gas that Build up Stars. Matter from the surrounding protoplanetary disk, the birthplace of planets, is channeled onto the stellar surface by magnetic fields shocking the surface at supersonic velocity (image credit: University of Cologne, Mark A. Garlick)

• July 30, 2020: Resembling a butterfly with its symmetrical structure, beautiful colors, and intricate patterns, this striking bubble of gas — known as NGC 2899 — appears to float and flutter across the sky in this new picture from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). This object has never before been imaged in such striking detail, with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars. 40)

- NGC 2899’s vast swathes of gas extend up to a maximum of two light-years from its center, glowing brightly in front of the stars of the Milky Way as the gas reaches temperatures upwards of ten thousand degrees. The high temperatures are due to the large amount of radiation from the nebula’s parent star, which causes the hydrogen gas in the nebula to glow in a reddish halo around the oxygen gas, in blue.

- This object, located between 3000 and 6500 light-years away in the Southern constellation of Vela (The Sails), has two central stars, which are believed to give it its nearly symmetric appearance. After one star reached the end of its life and cast off its outer layers, the other star now interferes with the flow of gas, forming the two-lobed shape seen here. Only about 10–20% of planetary nebulae [1] display this type of bipolar shape.

- Astronomers were able to capture this highly detailed image of NGC 2899 using the FORS (FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph) instrument installed on UT1 (Antu), one of the four 8.2-meter telescopes that make up ESO’s VLT in Chile. Standing for FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph, this high-resolution instrument was one of the first to be installed on ESO’s VLT and is behind numerous beautiful images and discoveries from ESO. FORS has contributed to observations of light from a gravitational wave source, has researched the first known interstellar asteroid, and has been used to study in depth the physics behind the formation of complex planetary nebulae.

- This image (Figure 26) was created under the ESO Cosmic Gems program, an outreach initiative to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes, for the purposes of education and public outreach. The program makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations. All data collected may also be suitable for scientific purposes, and are made available to astronomers through ESO’s science archive.

- Notes: [1] Unlike what their common name suggests, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. The first astronomers to observe them merely described them as planet-like in appearance. They are instead formed when ancient stars with up to 6 times the mass of our Sun reach the end of their lives, collapse, and blow off expanding shells of gas, rich in heavy elements. Intense ultraviolet radiation energizes and lights up these moving shells, causing them to shine brightly for thousands of years until they ultimately disperse slowly through space, making planetary nebulae relatively short-lived phenomena on astronomical timescales.

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Figure 26: This highly detailed image of the fantastic NGC 2899 planetary nebula was captured using the FORS instrument on ESO’s VLT (Very Large Telescope) in northern Chile. This object has never before been imaged in such striking detail, with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars (image credit: ESO)

• July 22, 2020: ESO's VLT has taken the first-ever image of a young, Sun-like star accompanied by two giant exoplanets. Images of systems with multiple exoplanets are extremely rare, and — until now — astronomers had never directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar to the Sun. The observations can help astronomers understand how planets formed and evolved around our own Sun. 41) 42)

- Just a few weeks ago, ESO revealed a planetary system being born in a new, stunning VLT image. Now, the same telescope, using the same instrument, has taken the first direct image of a planetary system around a star like our Sun, located about 300 light-years away and known as TYC 8998-760-1.

- “This discovery is a snapshot of an environment that is very similar to our Solar System, but at a much earlier stage of its evolution,” says Alexander Bohn, a PhD student at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who led the new research published today in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. 43)

- “Even though astronomers have indirectly detected thousands of planets in our galaxy, only a tiny fraction of these exoplanets have been directly imaged,” says co-author Matthew Kenworthy, Associate Professor at Leiden University, adding that “direct observations are important in the search for environments that can support life.” The direct imaging of two or more exoplanets around the same star is even more rare; only two such systems have been directly observed so far, both around stars markedly different from our Sun. The new ESO’s VLT image is the first direct image of more than one exoplanet around a Sun-like star. ESO’s VLT was also the first telescope to directly image an exoplanet, back in 2004, when it captured a speck of light around a brown dwarf, a type of ‘failed’ star.

- “Our team has now been able to take the first image of two gas giant companions that are orbiting a young, solar analogue,” says Maddalena Reggiani, a postdoctoral researcher from KU Leuven, Belgium, who also participated in the study. The two planets can be seen in the new image as two bright points of light distant from their parent star, which is located in the upper left of the frame (click on the image to view the full frame). By taking different images at different times, the team were able to distinguish these planets from the background stars.

- The two gas giants orbit their host star at distances of 160 and about 320 times the Earth-Sun distance. This places these planets much further away from their star than Jupiter or Saturn, also two gas giants, are from the Sun; they lie at only 5 and 10 times the Earth-Sun distance, respectively. The team also found the two exoplanets are much heavier than the ones in our Solar System, the inner planet having 14 times Jupiter’s mass and the outer one six times.

- Bohn’s team imaged this system during their search for young, giant planets around stars like our Sun but far younger. The star TYC 8998-760-1 is just 17 million years old and located in the Southern constellation of Musca (The Fly). Bohn describes it as a “very young version of our own Sun.”

- These images were possible thanks to the high performance of the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s VLT in the Chilean Atacama desert. SPHERE blocks the bright light from the star using a device called coronagraph, allowing the much fainter planets to be seen. While older planets, such as those in our Solar System, are too cool to be found with this technique, young planets are hotter, and so glow brighter in infrared light. By taking several images over the past year, as well as using older data going back to 2017, the research team have confirmed that the two planets are part of the star’s system.

- Further observations of this system, including with the future ESO Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), will enable astronomers to test whether these planets formed at their current location distant from the star or migrated from elsewhere. ESO’s ELT will also help probe the interaction between two young planets in the same system. Bohn concludes: “The possibility that future instruments, such as those available on the ELT, will be able to detect even lower-mass planets around this star marks an important milestone in understanding multi-planet systems, with potential implications for the history of our own Solar System.”

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Figure 27: This image, captured by the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, shows the star TYC 8998-760-1 accompanied by two giant exoplanets, TYC 8998-760-1b and TYC 8998-760-1c. This is the first time astronomers have directly observed more than one planet orbiting a star similar to the Sun. The two planets are visible as two bright dots in the center (TYC 8998-760-1b) and bottom right (TYC 8998-760-1c) of the frame. Other bright dots, which are background stars, are visible in the image as well. By taking different images at different times, the team were able to distinguish these planets from the background stars. The image was captured by blocking the light from the young, Sun-like star (top-left of center) using a coronagraph, which allows for the fainter planets to be detected. The bright and dark rings we see on the star’s image are optical artefacts (image credit: ESO/Bohn et al.)

• June 30, 2020: Using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have discovered the absence of an unstable massive star in a dwarf galaxy. Scientists think this could indicate that the star became less bright and partially obscured by dust. An alternative explanation is that the star collapsed into a black hole without producing a supernova. “If true,” says team leader and PhD student Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, “this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner.” 44)

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Figure 28: Artist’s impression of the disappearing star. This illustration shows what the luminous blue variable star in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy could have looked like before its mysterious disappearance (image credit: ESO/L. Calçada)

- Between 2001 and 2011, various teams of astronomers studied the mysterious massive star, located in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy, and their observations indicated it was in a late stage of its evolution. Allan and his collaborators in Ireland, Chile and the US wanted to find out more about how very massive stars end their lives, and the object in the Kinman Dwarf seemed like the perfect target. But when they pointed ESO’s VLT to the distant galaxy in 2019, they could no longer find the telltale signatures of the star. “Instead, we were surprised to find out that the star had disappeared!” says Allan, who led a study of the star published today in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 45)

- Located some 75 million light-years away in the constellation of Aquarius, the Kinman Dwarf galaxy is too far away for astronomers to see its individual stars, but they can detect the signatures of some of them. From 2001 to 2011, the light from the galaxy consistently showed evidence that it hosted a ‘luminous blue variable’ star some 2.5 million times brighter than the Sun. Stars of this type are unstable, showing occasional dramatic shifts in their spectra and brightness. Even with those shifts, luminous blue variables leave specific traces scientists can identify, but they were absent from the data the team collected in 2019, leaving them to wonder what had happened to the star. “It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion,” says Allan.

- The group first turned the ESPRESSO instrument toward the star in August 2019, using the VLT’s four 8-meter telescopes simultaneously. But they were unable to find the signs that previously pointed to the presence of the luminous star. A few months later, the group tried the X-shooter instrument, also on ESO’s VLT, and again found no traces of the star.

- “We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night,” says team-member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College Dublin. “Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO.” Ireland became an ESO member state in September 2018.

- The team then turned to older data collected using X-shooter and the UVES instrument on ESO’s VLT, located in the Chilean Atacama Desert, and telescopes elsewhere.“The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009,” says Andrea Mehner, a staff astronomer at ESO in Chile who participated in the study. “The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view.”

- The old data indicated that the star in the Kinman Dwarf could have been undergoing a strong outburst period that likely ended sometime after 2011. Luminous blue variable stars such as this one are prone to experiencing giant outbursts over the course of their life, causing the stars’ rate of mass loss to spike and their luminosity to increase dramatically.

- Based on their observations and models, the astronomers have suggested two explanations for the star’s disappearance and lack of a supernova, related to this possible outburst. The outburst may have resulted in the luminous blue variable being transformed into a less luminous star, which could also be partly hidden by dust. Alternatively, the team says the star may have collapsed into a black hole, without producing a supernova explosion. This would be a rare event: our current understanding of how massive stars die points to most of them ending their lives in a supernova.

- Future studies are needed to confirm what fate befell this star. Planned to begin operations in 2025, ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) will be capable of resolving stars in distant galaxies such as the Kinman Dwarf, helping to solve cosmic mysteries such as this one.

• May 28, 2020: Researchers from the University of Geneva, have confirmed the existence of the Proxima b extrasolar planet using measurements from the Swiss-built ESPRESSO spectrograph on ESO's VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile. 46)

- The existence of a planet the size of Earth around the closest star in the solar system, Proxima Centauri, has been confirmed by an international team of scientists including researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE). The results, which you can read all about in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics, reveal that the planet in question, Proxima b, has a mass of 1.17 earth masses and is located in the habitable zone of its star, which it orbits in 11.2 days. This breakthrough has been possible thanks to radial velocity measurements of unprecedented precision using ESPRESSO, the Swiss-manufactured spectrograph – the most accurate currently in operation – which is installed on the Very Large Telescope in Chile. Proxima b was first detected four years ago by means of an older spectrograph, HARPS – also developed by the Geneva-based team – which measured a low disturbance in the star’s speed, suggesting the presence of a companion.

- The ESPRESSO spectrograph has performed radial velocity measurements on the star Proxima Centauri, which is only 4.2 light-years from the Sun, with an accuracy of 30 cm/s or about three times more precise than that obtained with HARPS, the same type of instrument but from the previous generation.

- “We were already very happy with the performance of HARPS (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher), which has been responsible for discovering hundreds of exoplanets over the last 17 years”, begins Francesco Pepe, a professor in the Astronomy Department in UNIGE’s Faculty of Science and the man in charge of ESPRESSO. “We’re really pleased that ESPRESSO can produce even better measurements, and it’s gratifying and just reward for the teamwork lasting nearly 10 years.”

- Alejandro Suarez Mascareño, the article’s main author, adds: “Confirming the existence of Proxima b was an important task, and it’s one of the most interesting planets known in the solar neighborhood.”

- The measurements performed by ESPRESSO have clarified that the minimum mass of Proxima b is 1.17 earth masses (the previous estimate was 1.3) and that it orbits around its star in only 11.2 days.

- “ESPRESSO has made it possible to measure the mass of the planet with a precision of over one-tenth of the mass of Earth”, says Michel Mayor, winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2019, honorary professor in the Faculty of Science and the ‘architect’ of all ESPRESSO-type instruments. “It’s completely unheard of.”

And what about life in all this?

- Although Proxima b is about 20 times closer to its star than the Earth is to the Sun, it receives comparable energy, so that its surface temperature could mean that water (if there is any) is in liquid form in places and might, therefore, harbor life.

- Having said that, although Proxima b is an ideal candidate for biomarker research, there is still a long way to go before we can suggest that life has been able to develop on its surface. In fact, the Proxima star is an active red dwarf that bombards its planet with X rays, receiving about 400 times more than the Earth.

- “Is there an atmosphere that protects the planet from these deadly rays?” asks Christophe Lovis, a researcher in UNIGE’s Astronomy Department and responsible for ESPRESSO’s scientific performance and data processing. “And if this atmosphere exists, does it contain the chemical elements that promote the development of life (oxygen, for example)? How long have these favorable conditions existed? We’re going to tackle all these questions, especially with the help of future instruments like the RISTRETTO spectrometer, which we’re going to build specially to detect the light emitted by Proxima b, and HIRES, which will be installed on the future ELT 39 m giant telescope that the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is building in Chile.”

Surprise: is there a second planet?

- In the meantime, the precision of the measurements made by ESPRESSO could result in another surprise. The team has found evidence of a second signal in the data, without being able to establish the definitive cause behind it. “If the signal was planetary in origin, this potential other planet accompanying Proxima b would have a mass less than one third of the mass of the Earth. It would then be the smallest planet ever measured using the radial velocity method”, adds Professor Pepe.

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Figure 29: This artist’s impression shows a view of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri, the closest star to the Solar System (image credit: ESO, M. Kornmesser)

- It should be noted that ESPRESSO, which became operational in 2017, is in its infancy and these initial results are already opening up undreamt of opportunities. The road has been travelled at breakneck pace since the first extrasolar planet was discovered by Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, both from UNIGE’s Astronomy Department. In 1995, the 51Peg b gas giant planet was detected using the ELODIE spectrograph with an accuracy of 10 m/s. Today ESPRESSO, with its 30 cm/s (and soon 10 after the latest adjustments) will perhaps make it possible to explore worlds that remind us of the Earth. 47)

• May 20, 2020: Observations made with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (ESO’s VLT) have revealed the telltale signs of a star system being born. Around the young star AB Aurigae lies a dense disc of dust and gas in which astronomers have spotted a prominent spiral structure with a ‘twist’ that marks the site where a planet may be forming. The observed feature could be the first direct evidence of a baby planet coming into existence. 48) 49)

- “Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” says Anthony Boccaletti who led the study from the Observatoire de Paris, PSL University, France. Astronomers know planets are born in dusty discs surrounding young stars, like AB Aurigae, as cold gas and dust clump together. The new observations with ESO’s VLT, published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, provide crucial clues to help scientists better understand this process.

- “We need to observe very young systems to really capture the moment when planets form,” says Boccaletti. But until now astronomers had been unable to take sufficiently sharp and deep images of these young discs to find the ‘twist’ that marks the spot where a baby planet may be coming to existence.

- The new images feature a stunning spiral of dust and gas around AB Aurigae, located 520 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Auriga (The Charioteer). Spirals of this type signal the presence of baby planets, which ‘kick’ the gas, creating “disturbances in the disc in the form of a wave, somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake,” explains Emmanuel Di Folco of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux (LAB), France, who also participated in the study. As the planet rotates around the central star, this wave gets shaped into a spiral arm. The very bright yellow ‘twist’ region close to the center of the new AB Aurigae image, which lies at about the same distance from the star as Neptune from the Sun, is one of these disturbance sites where the team believe a planet is being made.

- Observations of the AB Aurigae system made a few years ago with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, provided the first hints of ongoing planet formation around the star. In the ALMA images, scientists spotted two spiral arms of gas close to the star, lying within the disc’s inner region. Then, in 2019 and early 2020, Boccaletti and a team of astronomers from France, Taiwan, the US and Belgium set out to capture a clearer picture by turning the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile toward the star. The SPHERE images are the deepest images of the AB Aurigae system obtained to date.

- With SPHERE's powerful imaging system, astronomers could see the fainter light from small dust grains and emissions coming from the inner disc. They confirmed the presence of the spiral arms first detected by ALMA and also spotted another remarkable feature, a ‘twist’, that points to the presence of ongoing planet formation in the disc. "The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” says co-author Anne Dutrey, also at LAB. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals — one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards — which join at the planet location. They allow gas and dust from the disc to accrete onto the forming planet and make it grow."

- ESO is constructing the 39-meter ELT (Extremely Large Telescope), which will draw on the cutting-edge work of ALMA and SPHERE to study extrasolar worlds. As Boccaletti explains, this powerful telescope will allow astronomers to get even more detailed views of planets in the making. “We should be able to see directly and more precisely how the dynamics of the gas contributes to the formation of planets,” he concludes.

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Figure 30: This image shows the disc around the young AB Aurigae star, where ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has spotted signs of planet birth. Close to the center of the image, in the inner region of the disc, we see the ‘twist’ (in very bright yellow) that scientists believe marks the spot where a planet is forming. This twist lies at about the same distance from the AB Aurigae star as Neptune from the Sun. The image was obtained with the VLT’s SPHERE instrument in polarized light (image credit: ESO/Boccaletti et al.)

• May 01, 2020: An international team of astronomers has captured fifteen images of the inner rims of planet-forming disks located hundreds of light years away. These disks of dust and gas, similar in shape to a music record, form around young stars. The images shed new light on how planetary systems are formed. They were published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics. 50) 51)

- To understand how planetary systems, including our own, take shape, you have to study their origins. Planet-forming or protoplanetary disks are formed in unison with the star they surround. The dust grains in the disks can grow into larger bodies, which eventually leads to the formation of planets. Rocky planets like the Earth are believed to form in the inner regions of protoplanetary disks, less than five astronomical units (five times the Earth-Sun distance) from the star around which the disk has formed.

- Before this new study, several pictures of these disks had been taken with the largest single-mirror telescopes, but these cannot capture their finest details. “In these pictures, the regions close to the star, where rocky planets form, are covered by only few pixels,” says lead author Jacques Kluska from KU Leuven in Belgium. “We needed to visualize these details to be able to identify patterns that might betray planet formation and to characterize the properties of the disks." This required a completely different observation technique. “I’m thrilled that we now for the first time have fifteen of these images,” Kluska continues.

Image reconstruction

- Kluska and his colleagues created the images at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile by using a technique called infrared interferometry. Using ESO’s PIONIER instrument, they combined the light collected by four telescopes at the VLT (Very Large Telescope) observatory to capture the disks in detail. However, this technique does not deliver an image of the observed source. The details of the disks needed to be recovered with a mathematical reconstruction technique. This technique is similar to how the first image of a black hole was captured. “We had to remove the light of the star, as it hindered the level of detail we could see in the disks,” Kluska explains.

- “Distinguishing details at the scale of the orbits of rocky planets like Earth or Jupiter (as you can see in the images) – a fraction of the Earth-Sun distance – is equivalent to being able to see a human on the Moon, or to distinguish a hair at a 10 km distance,” notes Jean-Philippe Berger of the Université Grenoble-Alpes, who as principal investigator was in charge of the work with the PIONIER instrument. “Infrared interferometry is becoming routinely used to uncover the tiniest details of astronomical objects. Combining this technique with advanced mathematics finally allows us to turn the results of these observations into images.”

Irregularities

- Some findings immediately stand out from the images. “You can see that some spots are brighter or less bright, like in the images above: this hints at processes that can lead to planet formation. For example: there could be instabilities in the disk that can lead to vortices where the disk accumulates grains of space dust that can grow and evolve into a planet.”

- The team will do additional research to identify what might lie behind these irregularities. Kluska will also do new observations to get even more detail and to directly witness planet formation in the regions within the disks that lie close to the star. Additionally, Kluska is heading a team that has started to study 11 disks around other, older types of stars also surrounded by disks of dust, since it is thought these might also sprout planets.

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Figure 31: The protoplanetary disks around the R CrA (left) and HD45677 (right) stars, captured with ESO’s VLT (Very Large Telescope) Interferometer. The orbits are added for reference. The star serves the same purpose, since its light was filtered out to get a more detailed image of the disk (image credit: Jacques Kluska et al.)

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Figure 32: The fifteen images of protoplanetary disks, captured with ESO's Very Large Telescope Interferometer (image credit: KU Leuven, ESO)