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eso0329 — Science Release
Optical Detection of Anomalous Nitrogen in Comets
12 September 2003: A team of European astronomers [1] has used the UVES spectrograph on the 8.2-m VLT KUEYEN telescope to perform a uniquely detailed study of Comet LINEAR (C/2000 WM1) . This is the first time that this powerful instrument has been employed to obtain high-resolution spectra of a comet. At the time of the observations in mid-March 2002, Comet LINEAR was about 180 million km from the Sun, moving outwards after its perihelion passage in January. As comets are believed to carry "pristine" material - left-overs from the formation of the solar system, about 4,600 million years ago - studies of these objects are important to obtain clues about the origins of the solar system and the Earth in particular. The high quality of the data obtained of this moving 9th-magnitude object has permitted a determination of the cometary abundance of various elements and their isotopes [2]. Of particular interest is the unambiguous detection and measurement of the nitrogen-15 isotope. The only other comet in which this isotope has been observed is famous Comet Hale-Bopp - this was during the passage in 1997, when it was much brighter than Comet LINEAR. Most interestingly, Comet LINEAR and Comet Hale-Bopp display the same isotopic abundance ratio, about 1 nitrogen-15 atom for each 140 nitrogen-14 atoms ( 14 N/ 15 N = 140 ± 30) . That is about half of the terrestrial value (272). It is also very different from the result obtained by means of radio measurements of Comet Hale-Bopp ( 14 N/ 15 N = 330 ± 75). Optical and radio measurements concern different molecules (CN and HCN, respectively), and this isotopic anomaly must be explained by some differentiation mechanism. The astronomers conclude that part of the cometary nitrogen is trapped in macromolecules attached to dust particles.
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eso0326 — Science Release
New Insight into the Cosmic Renaissance Epoch
21 August 2003: Using the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) , two astronomers from Germany and the UK [2] have discovered some of the most distant galaxies ever seen. They are located about 12,600 million light-years away. It has taken the light now recorded by the VLT about nine-tenths of the age of the Universe to traverse this huge distance. We therefore observe those galaxies as they were at a time when the Universe was very young, less than about 10% of its present age . At this time, the Universe was emerging from a long period known as the "Dark Ages," entering the luminous "Cosmic Renaissance" epoch. Unlike previous studies which resulted in the discovery of a few, widely dispersed galaxies at this early epoch, the present study found at least six remote citizens within a small sky area, less than five per cent the size of the full moon! This allowed understanding the evolution of these galaxies and how they affect the state of the Universe in its youth. In particular, the astronomers conclude on the basis of their unique data that there were considerably fewer luminous galaxies in the Universe at this early stage than 500 million years later. There must therefore be many less luminous galaxies in the region of space that they studied, too faint to be detected in this study. It must be those still unidentified galaxies that emit the majority of the energetic photons needed to ionise the hydrogen in the Universe at that particularly epoch.
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eso0325 — Science Release
The VLT Measures the Shape of a Type Ia Supernova
6 August 2003: An international team of astronomers [2] has performed new and very detailed observations of a supernova in a distant galaxy with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory (Chile). They show for the first time that a particular type of supernova, caused by the explosion of a "white dwarf", a dense star with a mass around that of the Sun, is asymmetric during the initial phases of expansion. The significance of this observation is much larger than may seem at a first glance . This particular kind of supernova, designated "Type Ia", plays a very important role in the current attempts to map the Universe. It has for long been assumed that Type Ia supernovae all have the same intrinsic brightness , earning them a nickname as "standard candles." If so, differences in the observed brightness between individual supernovae of this type simply reflect their different distances. This, and the fact that the peak brightness of these supernovae rivals that of their parent galaxy, has allowed to measure distances of even very remote galaxies . Some apparent discrepancies that were recently found have led to the discovery of cosmic acceleration. However, this first clearcut observation of explosion asymmetry in a Type Ia supernova means that the exact brightness of such an object will depend on the angle from which it is seen. Since this angle is unknown for any particular supernova, this obviously introduces an amount of uncertainty into this kind of basic distance measurements in the Universe which must be taken into account in the future. Fortunately, the VLT data also show that if you wait a little - which in observational terms makes it possible to look deeper into the expanding fireball - then it becomes more spherical. Distance determinations of supernovae that are performed at this later stage will therefore be more accurate.
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eso0318 — Science Release
Cosmological Gamma-Ray Bursts and Hypernovae Conclusively Linked
18 June 2003: A very bright burst of gamma-rays was observed on March 29, 2003 by NASA's High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE-II) , in a sky region within the constellation Leo. Within 90 min, a new, very bright light source (the "optical afterglow") was detected in the same direction by means of a 40-inch telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory (Australia) and also in Japan. The gamma-ray burst was designated GRB 030329 , according to the date. And within 24 hours, a first, very detailed spectrum of this new object was obtained by the UVES high-dispersion spectrograph on the 8.2-m VLT KUEYEN telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). It allowed to determine the distance as about 2,650 million light-years (redshift 0.1685). Continued observations with the FORS1 and FORS2 multi-mode instruments on the VLT during the following month allowed an international team of astronomers [1] to document in unprecedented detail the changes in the spectrum of the optical afterglow of this gamma-ray burst . Their detailed report appears in the June 19 issue of the research journal "Nature". The spectra show the gradual and clear emergence of a supernova spectrum of the most energetic class known, a "hypernova" . This is caused by the explosion of a very heavy star - presumably over 25 times heavier than the Sun. The measured expansion velocity (in excess of 30,000 km/sec) and the total energy released were exceptionally high, even within the elect hypernova class. From a comparison with more nearby hypernovae, the astronomers are able to fix with good accuracy the moment of the stellar explosion. It turns out to be within an interval of plus/minus two days of the gamma-ray burst. This unique conclusion provides compelling evidence that the two events are directly connected. These observations therefore indicate a common physical process behind the hypernova explosion and the associated emission of strong gamma-ray radiation. The team concludes that it is likely to be due to the nearly instantaneous, non-symmetrical collapse of the inner region of a highly developed star (known as the "collapsar" model). The March 29 gamma-ray burst will pass into the annals of astrophysics as a rare "type-defining event", providing conclusive evidence of a direct link between cosmological gamma-ray bursts and explosions of very massive stars.
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eso0317 — Science Release
Curtain-Lifting Winds Allow Rare Glimpse into Massive Star Factory
16 June 2003: Based on a vast observational effort with different telescopes and instruments, ESO-astronomer Dieter Nürnberger has obtained a first glimpse of the very first stages in the formation of heavy stars. These critical phases of stellar evolution are normally hidden from the view, because massive protostars are deeply embedded in their native clouds of dust and gas, impenetrable barriers to observations at all but the longest wavelengths. In particular, no visual or infrared observations have yet "caught" nascent heavy stars in the act and little is therefore known so far about the related processes. Profiting from the cloud-ripping effect of strong stellar winds from adjacent, hot stars in a young stellar cluster at the center of the NGC 3603 complex, several objects located near a giant molecular cloud were found to be bona-fide massive protostars, only about 100,000 years old and still growing. Three of these objects, designated IRS 9A-C, could be studied in more detail. They are very luminous (IRS 9A is about 100,000 times intrinsically brighter than the Sun), massive (more than 10 times the mass of the Sun) and hot (about 20,000 degrees). They are surrounded by relative cold dust (about 0°C), probably partly arranged in disks around these very young objects. Two possible scenarios for the formation of massive stars are currently proposed, by accretion of large amounts of circumstellar material or by collision (coalescence) of protostars of intermediate masses. The new observations favour accretion, i.e. the same process that is active during the formation of stars of smaller masses.
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