Feast your Eyes on the Fried Egg Nebula


Astronomers have used ESO’s Very Large Telescope to image a colossal star that belongs to one of the rarest classes of stars in the Universe, the yellow hypergiants. The new picture is the best ever taken of a star in this class and shows for the first time a huge dusty double shell surrounding the central hypergiant. The star and its shells resemble an egg white around a yolky centre, leading the astronomers to nickname the object the Fried Egg Nebula.

The monster star, known to astronomers as IRAS 17163-3907 [1], has a diameter about a thousand times bigger than our Sun. At a distance of about 13 000 light-years from Earth, it is the closest yellow hypergiant found to date and new observations show it shines some 500 000 times more brightly than the Sun [2].

“This object was known to glow brightly in the infrared but, surprisingly, nobody had identified it as a yellow hypergiant before,” said Eric Lagadec (European Southern Observatory), who led the team that produced the new images….. Continue reading Feast your Eyes on the Fried Egg Nebula

Fifty New Exoplanets Discovered by HARPS

Astronomers using ESO’s world-leading exoplanet hunter HARPS have today announced a rich haul of more than 50 new exoplanets, including 16 super-Earths, one of which orbits at the edge of the habitable zone of its star. By studying the properties of all the HARPS planets found so far, the team has found that about 40% of stars similar to the Sun have at least one planet lighter than Saturn.

The HARPS spectrograph on the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile is the world’s most successful planet finder [1]. The HARPS team, led by Michel Mayor (University of Geneva, Switzerland), today announced the discovery of more than 50 new exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, including sixteen super-Earths [2]. This is the largest number of such planets ever announced at one time [3]. The new findings are being presented at a conference on Extreme Solar Systems where 350 exoplanet experts are meeting in Wyoming, USA……. Continue reading Fifty New Exoplanets Discovered by HARPS

Laser Meets Lightning

On Thursday 18 August, the sky above the Allgäu Public Observatory in southwestern Bavaria was an amazing sight, with the night lit up by two very different phenomena: one an example of advanced technology, and the other of nature’s dramatic power.

As ESO tested the new Wendelstein laser guide star unit by shooting a powerful laser beam into the atmosphere, one of the region’s intense summer thunderstorms was approaching — a very visual demonstration of why ESO’s telescopes are in Chile, and not in Germany. Heavy grey clouds threw down bolts of lightning as Martin Kornmesser, visual artist for the ESO outreach department, took timelapse photographs of the test for ESOcast 34. With purely coincidental timing this photograph was snapped just as lightning flashed, resulting in a breathtaking image that looks like a scene from a science fiction movie. Although the storm was still far from the observatory, the lightning appears to clash with the laser beam in the sky.

Laser guide stars are artificial stars created 90 kilometres up in the Earth’s atmosphere using a laser beam. Measurements of this artificial star can be used to correct for the blurring effect of the atmosphere in astronomical observations — a technique known as adaptive optics. The Wendelstein laser guide star unit is a new design, combining the laser with the small telescope used to launch it in a single modular unit, which can then be placed onto larger telescopes.

The laser in this photograph is a powerful one, with a 20-watt beam, but the power in a bolt of lightning peaks at a trillion (one million million) watts, albeit for just a fraction of a second! Shortly after this picture was taken the storm reached the observatory, forcing operations to close for the night. While we may have the ability to harness advanced technology for devices such as laser guide stars, we are still subject to the forces of nature, not least among them the weather!
http://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1136a/

The Star That Should Not Exist

A team of European astronomers has used ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to track down a star in the Milky Way that many thought was impossible. They discovered that this star is composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium, with only remarkably small amounts of other chemical elements in it. This intriguing composition places it in the “forbidden zone” of a widely accepted theory of star formation, meaning that it should never have come into existence in the first place. The results will appear in the 1 September 2011 issue of the journal Nature.

A faint star in the constellation of Leo (The Lion), called SDSS J102915+172927 [1], has been found to have the lowest amount of elements heavier than helium (what astronomers call “metals”) of all stars yet studied. It has a mass smaller than that of the Sun and is probably more than 13 billion years old.

“A widely accepted theory predicts that stars like this, with low mass and extremely low quantities of metals, shouldn’t exist because the clouds of material from which they formed could never have condensed,” [2] said Elisabetta Caffau (Zentrum für Astronomie der Universität Heidelberg, Germany and Observatoire de Paris, France), lead author of the paper. “It was surprising to find, for the first time, a star in this ‘forbidden zone’, and it means we may have to revisit some of the star formation models.”

The team analysed the properties of the star using the X-shooter and UVES instruments on the VLT [3]. This allowed them to measure how abundant the various chemical elements were in the star. They found that the proportion of metals in SDSS J102915+172927 is more than 20 000 times smaller than that of the Sun [4][5].

“The star is faint, and so metal-poor that we could only detect the signature of one element heavier than helium — calcium — in our first observations,” said Piercarlo Bonifacio (Observatoire de Paris, France), who supervised the project. “We had to ask for additional telescope time from ESO’s Director General to study the star’s light in even more detail, and with a long exposure time, to try to find other metals.”

Cosmologists believe that the lightest chemical elements — hydrogen and helium — were created shortly after the Big Bang, together with some lithium [6], while almost all other elements were formed later in stars. Supernova explosions spread the stellar material into the interstellar medium, making it richer in metals. New stars form from this enriched medium so they have higher amounts of metals in their composition than the older stars. Therefore, the proportion of metals in a star tells us how old it is.

“The star we have studied is extremely metal-poor, meaning it is very primitive. It could be one of the oldest stars ever found,” adds Lorenzo Monaco (ESO, Chile), also involved in the study.

Also very surprising was the lack of lithium in SDSS J102915+172927. Such an old star should have a composition similar to that of the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, with a few more metals in it. But the team found that the proportion of lithium in the star was at least fifty times less than expected in the material produced by the Big Bang.

“It is a mystery how the lithium that formed just after the beginning of the Universe was destroyed in this star.” Bonifacio added.

The researchers also point out that this freakish star is probably not unique. “We have identified several more candidate stars that might have metal levels similar to, or even lower than, those in SDSS J102915+172927. We are now planning to observe them with the VLT to see if this is the case,” concludes Caffau.

Notes
[1] The star is catalogued in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey or SDSS. The numbers refer to the object’s position in the sky.

[2] Widely accepted star formation theories state that stars with a mass as low as SDSS J102915+172927 (about 0.8 solar masses or less) could only have formed after supernova explosions enriched the interstellar medium above a critical value. This is because the heavier elements act as “cooling agents”, helping to radiate away the heat of gas clouds in this medium, which can then collapse to form stars. Without these metals, the pressure due to heating would be too strong, and the gravity of the cloud would be too weak to overcome it and make the cloud collapse. One theory in particular identifies carbon and oxygen as the main cooling agents, and in SDSS J102915+172927 the amount of carbon is lower than the minimum deemed necessary for this cooling to be effective.

[3] X-shooter and UVES are VLT spectrographs — instruments used to separate the light from celestial objects into its component colours and allow detailed analysis of the chemical composition. X-shooter can capture a very wide range of wavelengths in the spectrum of an object in one shot (from the ultraviolet to the near-infrared). UVES is the Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph, a high-resolution optical instrument.

[4] The star HE 1327-2326, discovered in 2005, has the lowest known iron abundance, but it is rich in carbon. The star now analysed has the lowest proportion of metals when all chemical elements heavier than helium are considered.

[5] ESO telescopes have been deeply involved in many of the discoveries of the most metal-poor stars. Some of the earlier results were reported in eso0228 and eso0723 and the new discovery shows that observations with ESO telescopes have let astronomers make a further step closer to finding the first generation of stars.

[6] Primordial nucleosynthesis refers to the production of chemical elements with more than one proton a few moments after the Big Bang. This production happened in a very short time, allowing only hydrogen, helium and lithium to form, but no heavier elements. The Big Bang theory predicts, and observations confirm, that the primordial matter was composed of about 75% (by mass) of hydrogen, 25% of helium, and trace amounts of lithium.
http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1132/

Mysterious Blob in the Ancient Universe Explained

Giant Space Blob Glows from Within
VLT finds primordial cloud of hydrogen to be centrally powered

Observations from ESO’s Very Large Telescope have shed light on the power source of a rare vast cloud of glowing gas in the early Universe. The observations show for the first time that this giant “Lyman-alpha blob” — one of the largest single objects known — must be powered by galaxies embedded within it. The results appear in the 18 August issue of the journal Nature.

A team of astronomers has used ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to study an unusual object called a Lyman-alpha blob [1]. These huge and very luminous rare structures are normally seen in regions of the early Universe where matter is concentrated. The team found that the light coming from one of these blobs is polarised [2]. In everyday life, for example, polarised light is used to create 3D effects in cinemas [3]. This is the first time that polarisation has ever been found in a Lyman-alpha blob, and this observation helps to unlock the mystery of how the blobs shine.

We have shown for the first time that the glow of this enigmatic object is scattered light from brilliant galaxies hidden within, rather than the gas throughout the cloud itself shining.” explains Matthew Hayes (University of Toulouse, France), lead author of the paper.

Lyman-alpha blobs are some of the biggest objects in the Universe: gigantic clouds of hydrogen gas that can reach diameters of a few hundred thousand light-years (a few times larger than the size of the Milky Way), and which are as powerful as the brightest galaxies. They are typically found at large distances, so we see them as they were when the Universe was only a few billion years old. They are therefore important in our understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved when the Universe was younger. But the power source for their extreme luminosity, and the precise nature of the blobs, has remained unclear.

The team studied one of the first and brightest of these blobs to be found. Known as LAB-1, it was discovered in 2000, and it is so far away that its light has taken about 11.5 billion years to reach us (redshift 3.1). With a diameter of about 300 000 light-years it is also one of the largest known, and has several primordial galaxies inside it, including an active galaxy [4].

There are several competing theories to explain Lyman-alpha blobs. One idea is that they shine when cool gas is pulled in by the blob’s powerful gravity, and heats up. Another is that they are shining because of brilliant objects inside them: galaxies undergoing vigorous star formation, or containing voracious black holes engulfing matter. The new observations show that it is embedded galaxies, and not gas being pulled in, that power LAB-1.

The team tested the two theories by measuring whether the light from the blob was polarised. By studying how light is polarised astronomers can find out about the physical processes that produced the light, or what has happened to it between its origin and its arrival at Earth. If it is reflected or scattered it becomes polarised and this subtle effect can be detected by a very sensitive instrument. To measure polarisation of the light from a Lyman-alpha blob is, however, a very challenging observation, because of their great distance.

These observations couldn’t have been done without the VLT and its FORS instrument. We clearly needed two things: a telescope with at least an eight-metre mirror to collect enough light, and a camera capable of measuring the polarisation of light. Not many observatories in the world offer this combination.” adds Claudia Scarlata (University of Minnesota, USA), co-author of the paper.

By observing their target for about 15 hours with the Very Large Telescope, the team found that the light from the Lyman-alpha blob LAB-1 was polarised in a ring around the central region, and that there was no polarisation in the centre. This effect is almost impossible to produce if light simply comes from the gas falling into the blob under gravity, but it is just what is expected if the light originally comes from galaxies embedded in the central region, before being scattered by the gas.

The astronomers now plan to look at more of these objects to see if the results obtained for LAB-1 are true of other blobs.

Notes

[1] The name comes from the fact that these blobs emit a characteristic wavelength of light, known as “Lyman-alpha” radiation, that is produced when electrons in hydrogen atoms drop from the second-lowest to the lowest energy level.

[2] When light waves are polarised, their component electric and magnetic fields have a specific orientation. In unpolarised light the orientation of the fields is random and has no preferred direction.

[3] The 3D effect is created by making sure the left and right eyes are seeing slightly different images. The trick used in some 3D cinemas involves polarised light: separate images made with differently polarised light are sent to our left and right eyes by polarising filters in the glasses.

[4] Active galaxies are galaxies whose bright cores are believed to be powered by a vast black hole. Their luminosity comes from material being heated as it is pulled in by the black hole.
http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1130/

The Flames of Betelgeuse

New image reveals vast nebula around famous supergiant star

Using the VISIR instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have imaged a complex and bright nebula around the supergiant star Betelgeuse in greater detail than ever before. This structure, which resembles flames emanating from the star, is formed as the behemoth sheds its material into space…… Continue reading The Flames of Betelgeuse

Video: Pandora’s Cluster

The astronomy podcast exploring the cosmic frontier

Galaxy clusters contain literally trillions of stars, and when these massive structures collide all manner of strange effects occur. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope and a number of other top quality detectors, astronomers have been studying the colliding galaxy cluster Abell 2744, nicknamed Pandora’s Cluster because of the many strange phenomena taking place there.
In this episode of the ESOcast join Dr J as we piece together the violent and complex history of Pandora’s Cluster, one of the strangest colliding clusters in the sky…..
Read more: Creation of cosmic structure in the complex galaxy cluster merger Abell 2744
http://www.eso.org/public/announcements/ann11040/
Read also: ‘Pandora’ galaxy cluster crash yields dark matter clues