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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