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

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.