ESO announces first direct observation of an exoplanet using optical interferometry

Image: Aerial view of the observing platform on the top of Paranal mountain (from late 1999), with the four enclosures for the 8.2-m Unit Telescopes (UTs) and various installations for the VLT Interferometer (VLTI). Three 1.8-m VLTI Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs) 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. Credit: ESO
Aerial view of the observing platform on the top of Paranal mountain (from late 1999), with the four enclosures for the 8.2-m Unit Telescopes (UTs) and various installations for the VLT Interferometer (VLTI). Three 1.8-m VLTI Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs) and paths of the light beams have been superimposed on the photo. The Interferometric Laboratory (partly subterranean) is at the center of the platform. Credit: ESO

March 27 — The GRAVITY instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) has made the first direct observation of an exoplanet using optical interferometry. This method revealed a complex exoplanetary atmosphere with clouds of iron and silicates swirling in a planet-wide storm. The technique presents unique possibilities for characterizing many of the exoplanets known today.

The observation was announced today in a letter in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics by the GRAVITY Collaboration, in which they present observations of the exoplanet HR8799e using optical interferometry. The exoplanet was discovered in 2010 orbiting the young main-sequence star HR8799, which lies around 129 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Pegasus.

Image: This chart shows the constellation of Pegasus, which depicts a winged horse from Greek mythology. The chart shows the location of HR8799 and marks most of the stars visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night. The constellation is familiar to stargazers as it contains three of the four stars that make up the bright asterism known as the Square of Pegasus, used to locate various objects in the sky. The constellation also contains multiple deep-sky objects of interest to astronomers, including the gravitationally lensed quasar known as Einstein’s Cross.
This chart shows the constellation of Pegasus, which depicts a winged horse from Greek mythology. The chart shows the location of HR8799 and marks most of the stars visible to the unaided eye on a clear dark night. The constellation is familiar to stargazers as it contains three of the four stars that make up the bright asterism known as the Square of Pegasus, used to locate various objects in the sky. The constellation also contains multiple deep-sky objects of interest to astronomers, including the gravitationally-lensed quasar known as Einstein’s Cross. Credit: ESO, IAU and Sky & Telescope

Today’s result, which reveals new characteristics of HR8799e, required an instrument with very high resolution and sensitivity. GRAVITY can use ESO’s VLT’s four unit telescopes to work together to mimic a single larger telescope using a technique known as interferometry. This creates a super-telescope — the VLTI  — that collects and precisely disentangles the light from HR8799e’s atmosphere and the light from its parent star.
HR8799e is a ‘super-Jupiter’, a world unlike any found in our Solar System, that is both more massive and much younger than any planet orbiting the Sun. At only 30 million years old, this baby exoplanet is young enough to give scientists a window onto the formation of planets and planetary systems. The exoplanet is thoroughly inhospitable — leftover energy from its formation and a powerful greenhouse effect heat HR8799e to a hostile temperature of roughly 1000°C.

This is the first time that optical interferometry has been used to reveal details of an exoplanet, and the new technique furnished an exquisitely detailed spectrum of unprecedented quality — ten times more detailed than earlier observations. The team’s measurements were able to reveal the composition of HR8799e’s atmosphere  — which contained some surprises.

“Our analysis showed that HR8799e has an atmosphere containing far more carbon monoxide than methane — something not expected from equilibrium chemistry,” explains team leader Sylvestre Lacour researcher CNRS at the Observatoire de Paris – PSL and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. “We can best explain this surprising result with high vertical winds within the atmosphere preventing the carbon monoxide from reacting with hydrogen to form methane.”

The team found that the atmosphere also contains clouds of iron and silicate dust. When combined with the excess of carbon monoxide, this suggests that HR8799e’s atmosphere is engaged in an enormous and violent storm.

Image: This artist’s impression shows the observed exoplanet, which goes by the name HR8799e. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression shows the observed exoplanet, which goes by the name HR8799e. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada

“Our observations suggest a ball of gas illuminated from the interior, with rays of warm light swirling through stormy patches of dark clouds,” elaborates Lacour. “Convection moves around the clouds of silicate and iron particles, which disaggregate and rain down into the interior. This paints a picture of a dynamic atmosphere of a giant exoplanet at birth, undergoing complex physical and chemical processes.”

This result builds on GRAVITY’s string of impressive discoveries, which have included breakthroughs such as last year’s observation of gas swirling at 30% of the speed of light just outside the event horizon of the massive Black Hole in the Galactic Center. It also adds a new way of observing exoplanets to the already extensive arsenal of methods available to ESO’s telescopes and instruments — paving the way to many more impressive discoveries

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A fleeting moment in (astronomical) time

Image: ESO 1902a Credit: ESO
The faint, ephemeral glow emanating from the planetary nebula ESO 577-24 persists for only a short time  — around 10,000 years, a blink of an eye in astronomical terms. ESO’s Very Large Telescope captured this shell of glowing ionized gas — the last breath of the dying star whose simmering remains are visible at the heart of this image. As the gaseous shell of this planetary nebula expands and grows dimmer, it will slowly disappear from sight. An object much closer to home is also visible in this image — an asteroid wandering across the field of view has left a faint track below and to the left of the central star. And in the far distance behind the nebula a glittering host of background galaxies can be seen. Credit: ESO

 

An evanescent shell of glowing gas spreading into space — the planetary nebula ESO 577-24 —  dominates this image. This planetary nebula is the remains of a dead giant star that has thrown off its outer layers, leaving behind a small, intensely hot dwarf star. This diminished remnant will gradually cool and fade, living out its days as the mere ghost of a once-vast red giant star.

Red giants are stars at the end of their lives that have exhausted the hydrogen fuel in their cores and begun to contract under the crushing grip of gravity. As a red giant shrinks, the immense pressure reignites the core of the star, causing it to throw its outer layers into the void as a powerful stellar wind. The dying star’s incandescent core emits ultraviolet radiation intense enough to ionize these ejected layers and cause them to shine. The result is what we see as a planetary nebula — a final, fleeting testament to an ancient star at the end of its life.

This dazzling planetary nebula was discovered as part of the National Geographic Society  — Palomar Observatory Sky Survey in the 1950s, and was recorded in the Abell Catalogue of Planetary Nebulae in 1966. At around 1400 light years from Earth, the ghostly glow of ESO 577-24 is only visible through a powerful telescope. As the dwarf star cools, the nebula will continue to expand into space, slowly fading from view.

This image of ESO 577-24 was created as part of the ESO Cosmic Gems Programme, an initiative that produces 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 scientific observations; nevertheless, the data collected are made available to astronomers through the ESO Science Archive.

Monday, July 9: A quick trip to Alpha Centauri, and CAA’s Monthly General Membership Meeting

Photo: This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope's optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System.
This wide-field view of the sky around the bright star Alpha Centauri was created from photographic images forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The star appears so big just because of the scattering of light by the telescope’s optics as well as in the photographic emulsion. Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to the Solar System. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2
Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

Coming up on Monday, July 9 is the monthly meeting of the Cuyahoga Astronomical Association (CAA). The evening’s speaker will be Jay Reynolds, club member, research astronomer at Cleveland State University, and host of WKYC’s “In The Sky.” Jay will discuss how scientists are working now on a project to send high-speed probes to our Sun’s nearest neighboring star, with data results in less than 40 years of launch!

The CAA’s monthly meetings are held on the second Monday of every month (except December) at 7:30 PM at the Rocky River Nature Center; 24000 Valley Parkway; North Olmsted, Ohio, in the Cleveland Metroparks.

Following the presentation and a brief social break, the club will conduct its membership business meeting.

Extrasolar star’s turbulent surface imaged

Image: Star π1 Gruis Credit: ESO
Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have directly observed granulation patterns on the surface of a star outside the Solar System — the ageing red giant π1 Gruis. This remarkable new image from the PIONIER instrument reveals the convective cells that make up the surface of this huge star. Each cell covers more than a quarter of the star’s diameter and measures about 120 million kilometers across. Image Credit: ESO

Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time directly observed granulation patterns on the surface of a star outside the Solar System — the ageing red giant π1 Gruis. This remarkable new image from the PIONIER instrument reveals the convective cells that make up the surface of this huge star, which has 700 times the diameter of the Sun. Each cell covers more than a quarter of the star’s diameter and measures about 120 million kilometers across. These new results are being published this week in the journal Nature.

Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. It has about the same mass as our Sun, but is 700 times larger and several thousand times as bright. Our Sun will swell to become a similar red giant star in about five billion years.

An international team of astronomers led by Claudia Paladini (ESO) used the PIONIER instrument on European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope to observe π1 Gruis in greater detail than ever before. They found that the surface of this red giant has just a few convective cells, or granules, that are each about 120 million kilometers across — about a quarter of the star’s diameter. Just one of these granules would extend from the Sun to beyond Venus. The surfaces — known as photospheres — of many giant stars are obscured by dust, which hinders observations. However, in the case of π1 Gruis, although dust is present far from the star, it does not have a significant effect on the new infrared observations.

When π1 Gruis ran out of hydrogen to burn long ago, this ancient star ceased the first stage of its nuclear fusion program. It shrank as it ran out of energy, causing it to heat up to over 100 million degrees. These extreme temperatures fueled the star’s next phase as it began to fuse helium into heavier atoms such as carbon and oxygen. This intensely hot core then expelled the star’s outer layers, causing it to balloon to hundreds of times larger than its original size. The star we see today is a variable red giant. Until now, the surface of one of these stars has never before been imaged in detail.

By comparison, the Sun’s photosphere contains about two million convective cells, with typical diameters of just 1,500 kilometers. The vast size differences in the convective cells of these two stars can be explained in part by their varying surface gravities. π1 Gruis is just 1.5 times the mass of our Sun but much larger, resulting in a much lower surface gravity and just a few, extremely large, granules.

While stars more massive than eight solar masses end their lives in dramatic supernovae explosions, less massive stars like this one gradually expel their outer layers, resulting in beautiful planetary nebulae. Previous studies of π1 Gruis found a shell of material 0.9 light-years away from the central star, thought to have been ejected around 20,000 years ago. This relatively short period in a star’s life lasts just a few tens of thousands of years – compared to the overall lifetime of several billion – and these observations reveal a new method for probing this fleeting red giant phase.

Discovered: An Earth-sized temperate planet only 11 light-years away

Image: Planet Ross 128 b
This artist’s impression shows the temperate planet Ross 128 b, with its red dwarf parent star in the background. Image Credit: European Southern Observatory

A team working with ESO’s High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile has found that the red dwarf star Ross 128 is orbited by a low-mass exoplanet every 9.9 days. This Earth-sized world is expected to be temperate, with a surface temperature that may also be close to that of the Earth. Ross 128 is the “quietest” nearby star to host such a temperate exoplanet.

“This discovery is based on more than a decade of HARPS intensive monitoring together with state-of-the-art data reduction and analysis techniques. Only HARPS has demonstrated such a precision and it remains the best planet hunter of its kind, 15 years after it began operations,” explains Nicola Astudillo-Defru (Geneva Observatory – University of Geneva, Switzerland), who co-authored the discovery paper.

Red dwarfs are some of the coolest, faintest — and most common — stars in the Universe. This makes them very good targets in the search for exoplanets and so they are increasingly being studied. In fact, lead author Xavier Bonfils (Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble – Université Grenoble-Alpes/CNRS, Grenoble, France), named their HARPS program The shortcut to happiness, as it is easier to detect small cool siblings of Earth around these stars, than around stars more similar to the Sun.

Many red dwarf stars, including Proxima Centauri, are subject to flares that occasionally bathe their orbiting planets in deadly ultraviolet and X-ray radiation. However, it seems that Ross 128 is a much quieter star, and so its planets may be the closest known comfortable abode for possible life.

Although it is currently 11 light-years from Earth, Ross 128 is moving towards us and is expected to become our nearest stellar neighbor in just 79,000 years — a blink of the eye in cosmic terms. Ross 128 b will by then take the crown from Proxima b and become the closest exoplanet to Earth!

With the data from HARPS, the team found that Ross 128 b orbits 20 times closer than the Earth orbits the Sun. Despite this proximity, Ross 128 b receives only 1.38 times more irradiation than the Earth. As a result, Ross 128 b’s equilibrium temperature is estimated to lie between -60°C and 20°C, thanks to the cool and faint nature of its small red dwarf host star, which has just over half the surface temperature of the Sun. While the scientists involved in this discovery consider Ross 128b to be a temperate planet, uncertainty remains as to whether the planet lies inside, outside, or on the cusp of the habitable zone, where liquid water may exist on a planet’s surface.

Astronomers are now detecting more and more temperate exoplanets, and the next stage will be to study their atmospheres, composition and chemistry in more detail. Vitally, the detection of biomarkers such as oxygen in the very closest exoplanet atmospheres will be a huge next step, which ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is in prime position to take.

“New facilities at ESO will first play a critical role in building the census of Earth-mass planets amenable to characterization. In particular, NIRPS, the infrared arm of HARPS, will boost our efficiency in observing red dwarfs, which emit most of their radiation in the infrared. And then, the ELT will provide the opportunity to observe and characterize a large fraction of these planets,” concludes Xavier Bonfils.

Seven Earth-sized planets discovered around dwarf star 40 light-years distant

Image: Star system with planets. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/spaceengine.org
This artist’s impression shows the view from the surface of one of the planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system. At least seven planets orbit this ultra cool dwarf star 40 light-years from Earth and they are all roughly the same size as the Earth. They are at the right distances from their star for liquid water to exist on the surfaces of several of them. This artist’s impression is based on the known physical parameters for the planets and stars seen, and uses a vast database of objects in the Universe. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser/spaceengine.org

Feb. 22, 2017 — Astronomers have found a system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away. Using ground and space telescopes, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the planets were all detected as they passed in front of their parent star, the ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. According to the paper appearing today in the journal Nature, three of the planets lie in the habitable zone and could harbor oceans of water on their surfaces, increasing the possibility that the star system could play host to life. This system has both the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of worlds that could support liquid water on their surfaces.

Astronomers using the TRAPPIST–South telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as other telescopes around the world, have now confirmed the existence of at least seven small planets orbiting the cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. All the planets, labelled TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g and h in order of increasing distance from their parent star, have sizes similar to Earth.

Dips in the star’s light output caused by each of the seven planets passing in front of it — events known as transits — allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. They found that at least the inner six planets are comparable in both size and temperature to the Earth.

Lead author Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium is delighted by the findings: “This is an amazing planetary system — not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth!”

With just eight percent the mass of the Sun, TRAPPIST-1 is very small in stellar terms — only marginally bigger than the planet Jupiter — and though nearby in the constellation Aquarius (The Water Carrier), it appears very dim. Astronomers expected that such dwarf stars might host many Earth-sized planets in tight orbits, making them promising targets in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, but TRAPPIST-1 is the first such system to be found.

Co-author Amaury Triaud expands: “The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our Sun. Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in the Solar System if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1!”

The team determined that all the planets in the system are similar in size to Earth and Venus in the Solar System, or slightly smaller. The density measurements suggest that at least the innermost six are probably rocky in composition.

The planetary orbits are not much larger than that of Jupiter’s Galilean moon system, and much smaller than the orbit of Mercury in the Solar System. However, TRAPPIST-1’s small size and low temperature mean that the energy input to its planets is similar to that received by the inner planets in our Solar System; TRAPPIST-1c, d and f receive similar amounts of energy to Venus, Earth and Mars, respectively.

All seven planets discovered in the system could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, though their orbital distances make some of them more likely candidates than others. Climate models suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b, c and d, are probably too hot to support liquid water, except maybe on a small fraction of their surfaces. The orbital distance of the system’s outermost planet, TRAPPIST-1h, is unconfirmed, though it is likely to be too distant and cold to harbor liquid water — assuming no alternative heating processes are occurring. TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g, however, represent the holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers, as they orbit in the star’s habitable zone and could host oceans of surface water.

These new discoveries make the TRAPPIST-1 system a very important target for future study. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets and team member Emmanuël Jehin is excited about the future possibilities: “With the upcoming generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, we will soon be able to search for water and perhaps even evidence of life on these worlds.”

Earth-sized world detected at Proxima Centauri

Astronomers using ESO telescopes and other facilities have found clear evidence of a planet orbiting the nearest star to our own Sun, Proxima Centauri. The long-sought world, designated Proxima b, orbits its cool red parent star every 11 days and has a temperature possibly suitable for liquid water to exist on its surface. This rocky world is a little more massive than the Earth and is the closest exoplanet to us — and it may also be the closest possible abode for life outside the Solar System. A paper describing this milestone finding will be published in the journal Nature on 25 August 2016.

Just over four light-years from the Solar System lies the red dwarf star named Proxima Centauri as it is the closest star to Earth apart from the Sun. This cool star, in the southern hemisphere constellation of Centaurus, is too faint to be seen with the unaided eye and lies near to the much brighter pair of stars known as Alpha Centauri AB.

During the first half of 2016 Proxima Centauri was regularly observed with the HARPS spectrograph on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at La Silla in Chile and simultaneously monitored by other telescopes around the world. This was the Pale Red Dot Campaign, in which a team of astronomers led by Guillem Anglada-Escudé, from Queen Mary University of London, was looking for the tiny back and forth wobble of the star that would be caused by the gravitational pull of a possible orbiting planet.

As this was a topic with very wide public interest, the progress of the campaign between mid-January and April 2016 was shared publicly as it happened on the Pale Red Dot website and via social media. The reports were accompanied by numerous outreach articles written by specialists around the world.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé explains the background to this unique search: “The first hints of a possible planet were spotted back in 2013, but the detection was not convincing. Since then we have worked hard to get further observations off the ground with help from ESO and others. The recent Pale Red Dot campaign has been about two years in the planning.”
The Pale Red Dot data, when combined with earlier observations made at ESO observatories and elsewhere, revealed the clear signal of a truly exciting result.

At times Proxima Centauri is approaching Earth at about five kilometers per hour — normal human walking pace — and at times receding at the same speed. This regular pattern of changing radial velocities repeats with a period of 11.2 days. Careful analysis of the resulting tiny Doppler shifts showed that they indicated the presence of a planet with a mass at least 1.3 times that of the Earth, orbiting about seven million kilometers from Proxima Centauri — only five percent of the Earth-Sun distance.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé comments on the excitement of the last few months: “I kept checking the consistency of the signal every single day during the 60 nights of the Pale Red Dot Campaign. The first 10 were promising, the first 20 were consistent with expectations, and at 30 days the result was pretty much definitive, so we started drafting the paper!”

Red dwarfs like Proxima Centauri are active stars and can vary in ways that would mimic the presence of a planet. To exclude this possibility the team also monitored the changing brightness of the star very carefully during the campaign using the ASH2 telescope at the San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations Observatory in Chile and the Las Cumbres Observatory telescope network. Radial velocity data taken when the star was flaring were excluded from the final analysis.

Although Proxima b orbits much closer to its star than Mercury does to the Sun in the Solar System, the star itself is far fainter than the Sun. As a result Proxima b lies well within the habitable zone around the star and has an estimated surface temperature that would allow the presence of liquid water. Despite the temperate orbit of Proxima b, the conditions on the surface may be strongly affected by the ultraviolet and X-ray flares from the star — far more intense than the Earth experiences from the Sun.

Two separate papers discuss the habitability of Proxima b and its climate. They find that the existence of liquid water on the planet today cannot be ruled out and, in such case, it may be present over the surface of the planet only in the sunniest regions, either in an area in the hemisphere of the planet facing the star (synchronous rotation) or in a tropical belt (3:2 resonance rotation). Proxima b’s rotation, the strong radiation from its star and the formation history of the planet makes its climate quite different from that of the Earth, and it is unlikely that Proxima b has seasons.

This discovery will be the beginning of extensive further observations, both with current instruments and with the next generation of giant telescopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Proxima b will be a prime target for the hunt for evidence of life elsewhere in the Universe. Indeed, the Alpha Centauri system is also the target of humankind’s first attempt to travel to another star system, the StarShot project.

Guillem Anglada-Escudé concludes: “Many exoplanets have been found and many more will be found, but searching for the closest potential Earth-analog and succeeding has been the experience of a lifetime for all of us. Many people’s stories and efforts have converged on this discovery. The result is also a tribute to all of them. The search for life on Proxima b comes next…”