New telescope at ESO’s La Silla joins effort to protect Earth from risky asteroids

La Silla Observatory
The new Test-Bed Telescope 2, a European Space Agency telescope, is housed inside the shiny white dome shown in this picture, at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The telescope has now started operations and will assist its northern-hemisphere twin in protecting us from potentially hazardous, near-Earth objects. The domes of ESO’s 0.5 m and the Danish 0.5 m telescopes are visible in the background of this image. Credit: I. Saviane/ESO

Part of the world-wide effort to scan and identify near-Earth objects, the European Space Agency’s Test-Bed Telescope 2 (TBT2), a technology demonstrator hosted at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, has now started operating. Working alongside its northern-hemisphere partner telescope, TBT2 will keep a close eye on the sky for asteroids that could pose a risk to Earth, testing hardware and software for a future telescope network.

“To be able to calculate the risk posed by potentially hazardous objects in the Solar System, we first need a census of these objects. The TBT project is a step in that direction,” says Ivo Saviane, the site manager for ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The project, which is a collaboration between the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA), “is a test-bed to demonstrate the capabilities needed to detect and follow-up near-Earth objects with the same telescope system,” says ESA’s Head of the Optical Technologies Section Clemens Heese, who is leading this project.

Guiding the structure of the Test-Bed Telescope 2 into place
An engineer guides the telescope structure of the Test-Bed Telescope 2 carefully into place as it is lowered into its sheltering dome at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. Credit: P. Sinclaire/ESO

The 56-cm telescope at ESO’s La Silla and TBT1, its identical counterpart located at the ESA’s deep-space ground station at Cebreros in Spain, will act as precursors to the planned ‘Flyeye’ telescope network, a separate project that ESA is developing to survey and track fast-moving objects in the sky. This future network will be entirely robotic; software will perform real-time scheduling of observations and, at the end of the day, it will report the positions and other information about the objects detected. The TBT project is designed to show that the software and hardware work as expected.

“The start of observations of TBT2 at La Silla will enable the observing system to work in its intended two-telescope configuration, finally fulfilling the project’s objectives,” says Heese.

While seriously harmful asteroid impacts on Earth are extremely rare, they are not inconceivable. Earth has been periodically bombarded with both large and small asteroids for billions of years, and the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor event, which caused some 1,600 injuries, most due to flying splinters and broken glass, further raised the public’s awareness of the threat posed by near-Earth objects. Larger objects do more damage, but are thankfully easier to spot and the orbits of known large asteroids are already thoroughly studied. However, it is estimated that there are large numbers of smaller, yet-undiscovered objects we are unaware of that could do serious damage if they were to hit a populated area.

That’s where TBT and the future planned network of Flyeye telescopes come in. Once fully operational the network’s design would allow it to survey the night sky to track fast-moving objects, a significant advancement in Europe’s capacity to spot potentially hazardous near-Earth objects.

Possibly the first truly pristine comet ever observed

2I/Borisov passed near the Sun. 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. Credit:ESO/O. Hainaut
This image was taken with the FORS2 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in late 2019, when comet 2I/Borisov passed near the Sun. Since the comet was traveling at breakneck speed, around 175 000 kilometers per hour, 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. Credit:ESO/O. Hainaut

MARCH 30 — 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.

Comet 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.

2020 Nobel Prize in Physics awarded for research on Milky Way’s supermassive black hole

The central parts of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, as observed in the near-infrared with the NACO instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. By following the motions of the most central stars over more than 16 years, astronomers were able to determine the mass of the supermassive black hole that lurks there.
Credit:ESO/S. Gillessen et al.

Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez have jointly been awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on the supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*, at the center of our galaxy. Genzel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany, and his team have conducted observations of Sagittarius A* for nearly 30 years using a fleet of instruments on European Southern Observatory (ESO) telescopes.

Genzel shares half of the prize with Ghez, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles in the US, “for the discovery of a supermassive compact object at the center of our galaxy”, with the other half awarded to Roger Penrose, professor at the University of Oxford in the UK, “for the discovery that black hole formation is a robust prediction of the general theory of relativity.” 

“Congratulations to all three Nobel laureates! We are delighted that the research on the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy has been recognized with the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics. We are proud that the telescopes ESO builds and operates at its observatories in Chile played a key role in this discovery,” says ESO’s Director General Xavier Barcons. “The work done by Reinhard Genzel with ESO telescopes and by Andrea Ghez with the Keck telescopes in Hawaii has enabled unprecedented insight into Sagittarius A*, which confirmed predictions of Einstein’s general relativity.”

ESO has worked in very close collaboration with Genzel and his group for around 30 years. Since the early 1990s, Genzel and his team, in cooperation with ESO, have developed instruments designed to track the orbits of stars in the Sagittarius A* region at the center of the Milky Way. 

They started their campaign in 1992 using the SHARP instrument on ESO’s New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. The team later used extremely sensitive instruments on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the Very Large Telescope Interferometer at the Paranal Observatory, namely NACO, SINFONI and later GRAVITY, to continue their study of Sagittarius A. 

In 2008, after 16 years of tracking stars orbiting Sagittarius A*, the team delivered the best empirical evidence that a supermassive black hole exists at the center of our galaxy. Both Genzel’s and Ghez’s groups accurately traced the orbit of one star in particular, S2, which reached the closest distance to Sagittarius A* in May 2018. ESO undertook a number of developments and infrastructure upgrades in Paranal to enable accurate measurements of the position and velocity of S2.

The team led by Genzel found the light emitted by the star close to the supermassive black hole was stretched to longer wavelengths, an effect known as gravitational redshift, confirming for the first time Einstein’s general relativity near a supermassive black hole. Earlier this year, the team announced they had seen S2 ‘dance’ around the supermassive black hole, showing its orbit is shaped like a rosette, an effect called Schwarzschild precession that was predicted by Einstein.

Genzel and his team are also involved in the development of instruments that will be installed on ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, currently under construction in Chile’s Atacama Desert, which will enable them to probe the environment even closer to the supermassive black hole.

Possible sign of life detected in the atmosphere of Venus

This artistic illustration depicts the Venusian surface and atmosphere. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

An international team of astronomers today announced the discovery of a rare molecule — phosphine — in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes — floating free of the scorching surface but needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine could point to such extra-terrestrial “aerial” life. Confirming the presence of life, however, will require much more work.

“When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock!”, says team leader Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK, who first spotted signs of phosphine in observations from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), operated by the East Asian Observatory, in Hawaiʻi. Confirming their discovery required using 45 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a more sensitive telescope in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimeter, much longer than the human eye can see — only telescopes at high altitude can detect it effectively.

The international team, which includes researchers from the UK, US and Japan, estimates that phosphine exists in Venus’s clouds at a small concentration, only about twenty molecules in every billion. Following their observations, they ran calculations to see whether these amounts could come from natural non-biological processes on the planet. Some ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough of it. These non-biological sources were found to make at most one ten thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.

To create the observed quantity of phosphine (which consists of hydrogen and phosphorus) on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to the team. Earth bacteria are known to make phosphine: they take up phosphate from minerals or biological material, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine. Any organisms on Venus will probably be very different to their Earth cousins, but they too could be the source of phosphine in the atmosphere.

While the discovery of phosphine in Venus’s clouds came as a surprise, the researchers are confident in their detection. “To our great relief, the conditions were good at ALMA for follow-up observations while Venus was at a suitable angle to Earth. Processing the data was tricky, though, as ALMA isn’t usually looking for very subtle effects in very bright objects like Venus,” says team member Anita Richards of the UK ALMA Regional Centre and the University of Manchester. “In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing — faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below,” adds Greaves, who led the study published today in Nature Astronomy.

Another team member, Clara Sousa Silva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, has investigated phosphine as a “biosignature” gas of non-oxygen-using life on planets around other stars, because normal chemistry makes so little of it. She comments: “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment — but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”

The team believes their discovery is significant because they can rule out many alternative ways to make phosphine, but they acknowledge that confirming the presence of “life” needs a lot more work. Although the high clouds of Venus have temperatures up to a pleasant 30 degrees Celsius, they are incredibly acidic — around 90% sulfuric acid — posing major issues for any microbes trying to survive there.

ESO astronomer and ALMA European Operations Manager Leonardo Testi, who did not participate in the new study, says: “The non-biological production of phosphine on Venus is excluded by our current understanding of phosphine chemistry in rocky planets’ atmospheres. Confirming the existence of life on Venus’s atmosphere would be a major breakthrough for astrobiology; thus, it is essential to follow-up on this exciting result with theoretical and observational studies to exclude the possibility that phosphine on rocky planets may also have a chemical origin different than on Earth.”

More observations of Venus and of rocky planets outside our Solar System, including with ESO’s forthcoming Extremely Large Telescope, may help gather clues on how phosphine can originate on them and contribute to the search for signs of life beyond Earth.