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eso0428 — Science Release
Is This Speck of Light an Exoplanet?
10 September 2004: Is this newly discovered feeble point of light the long-sought bona-fide image of an exoplanet? A research paper by an international team of astronomers [2] provides sound arguments in favour, but the definitive answer is now awaiting further observations. On several occasions during the past years, astronomical images revealed faint objects, seen near much brighter stars. Some of these have been thought to be those of orbiting exoplanets, but after further study, none of them could stand up to the real test. Some turned out to be faint stellar companions, others were entirely unrelated background stars. This one may well be different. In April of this year, the team of European and American astronomers detected a faint and very red point of light very near (at 0.8 arcsec angular distance) a brown-dwarf object, designated 2MASSWJ1207334-393254. Also known as "2M1207", this is a "failed star", i.e. a body too small for major nuclear fusion processes to have ignited in its interior and now producing energy by contraction. It is a member of the TW Hydrae stellar association located at a distance of about 230 light-years. The discovery was made with the adaptive-optics supported NACO facility [3] at the 8.2-m VLT Yepun telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). The feeble object is more than 100 times fainter than 2M1207 and its near-infrared spectrum was obtained with great efforts in June 2004 by NACO, at the technical limit of the powerful facility. This spectrum shows the signatures of water molecules and confirms that the object must be comparatively small and light. None of the available observations contradict that it may be an exoplanet in orbit around 2M1207. Taking into account the infrared colours and the spectral data, evolutionary model calculations point to a 5 jupiter-mass planet in orbit around 2M1207. Still, they do not yet allow a clear-cut decision about the real nature of this intriguing object. Thus, the astronomers refer to it as a "Giant Planet Candidate Companion (GPCC)" [4]. Observations will now be made to ascertain whether the motion in the sky of GPCC is compatible with that of a planet orbiting 2M1207. This should become evident within 1-2 years at the most.
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eso0426 — Organisation Release
SINFONI Opens with Upbeat Chords
24 August 2004: The European Southern Observatory, the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (Garching, Germany) and the Nederlandse Onderzoekschool Voor Astronomie (Leiden, The Netherlands), and with them all European astronomers, are celebrating the successful accomplishment of "First Light" for the Adaptive Optics (AO) assisted SINFONI ("Spectrograph for INtegral Field Observation in the Near-Infrared") instrument, just installed on ESO's Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory (Chile). This is the first facility of its type ever installed on an 8-m class telescope, now providing exceptional observing capabilities for the imaging and spectroscopic studies of very complex sky regions, e.g. stellar nurseries and black-hole environments, also in distant galaxies. Following smooth assembly at the 8.2-m VLT Yepun telescope of SINFONI's two parts, the Adaptive Optics Module that feeds the SPIFFI spectrograph, the "First Light" spectrum of a bright star was recorded with SINFONI in the early evening of July 9, 2004. The following thirteen nights served to evaluate the performance of the new instrument and to explore its capabilities by test observations on a selection of exciting astronomical targets. They included the Galactic Centre region, already imaged with the NACO AO-instrument on the same telescope. Unprecedented high-angular resolution spectra and images were obtained of stars in the immediate vicinity of the massive central black hole. During the night of July 15 - 16, SINFONI recorded a flare from this black hole in great detail. Other interesting objects observed during this period include galaxies with active nuclei (e.g., the Circinus Galaxy and NGC 7469), a merging galaxy system (NGC 6240) and a young starforming galaxy pair at redshift 2 (BX 404/405). These first results were greeted with enthusiasm by the team of astronomers and engineers [2] from the consortium of German and Dutch Institutes and ESO who have worked on the development of SINFONI for nearly 7 years. The work on SINFONI at Paranal included successful commissioning in June 2004 of the Adaptive Optics Module built by ESO, during which exceptional test images were obtained of the main-belt asteroid (22) Kalliope and its moon. Moreover, the ability was demonstrated to correct the atmospheric turbulence by means of even very faint "guide" objects (magnitude 17.5), crucial for the observation of astronomical objects in many parts of the sky. SPIFFI - SPectrometer for Infrared Faint Field Imaging - was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE) in Garching (Germany), in a collaboration with the Nederlandse Onderzoekschool Voor Astronomie (NOVA) in Leiden and the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy (ASTRON), and ESO.
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eso0417 — Organisation Release
Feeling the Heat
12 May 2004: Close to midnight on April 30, 2004, intriguing thermal infrared images of dust and gas heated by invisible stars in a distant region of our Milky Way appeared on a computer screen in the control room of the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT). These images mark the successful "First Light" of the VLT Imager and Spectrometer in the InfraRed (VISIR), the latest instrument to be installed on this powerful telescope facility at the ESO Paranal Observatory in Chile. The event was greeted with a mixture of delight, satisfaction and some relief by the team of astronomers and engineers from the consortium of French and Dutch Institutes and ESO who have worked on the development of VISIR for around 10 years [1]. Pierre-Olivier Lagage (CEA, France), the Principal Investigator, is content : "This is a wonderful day! A result of many years of dedication by a team of engineers and technicians, who can today be proud of their work. With VISIR, astronomers will have at their disposal a great instrument on a marvellous telescope. And the gain is enormous; 20 minutes of observing with VISIR is equivalent to a whole night of observing on a 3-4m class telescope." Dutch astronomer and co-PI Jan-Willem Pel (Groningen, The Netherlands) adds: "What's more, VISIR features a unique observing mode in the mid-infrared: spectroscopy at a very high spectral resolution. This will open up new possibilities such as the study of warm molecular hydrogen most likely to be an important component of our galaxy."
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eso0414 — Science Release
Closer to the Monster
5 May 2004: Fulfilling an old dream of astronomers, observations with the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile) have now made it possible to obtain a clear picture of the immediate surroundings of the black hole at the centre of an active galaxy. The new results concern the spiral galaxy NGC 1068, located at a distance of about 50 million light-years. They show a configuration of comparatively warm dust (about 50°C) measuring 11 light-years across and 7 light-years thick, with an inner, hotter zone (500°C), about 2 light-years wide. These imaging and spectral observations confirm the current theory that black holes at the centres of active galaxies are enshrouded in a thick doughnut-shaped structure of gas and dust called a "torus." For this trailblazing study, the first of its kind of an extragalactic object by means of long-baseline infrared interferometry, an international team of astronomers [2] used the new MIDI instrument in the VLTI Laboratory. It was designed and constructed in a collaboration between German, Dutch and French research institutes [3]. Combining the light from two 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes during two observing runs in June and November 2003, respectively, a maximum resolution of 0.013 arcsec was achieved, corresponding to about 3 light-years at the distance of NGC 1068. Infrared spectra of the central region of this galaxy were obtained that indicate that the heated dust is probably of alumino-silicate composition. The new results are published in a research paper appearing in the May 6, 2004, issue of the international research journal Nature.
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eso0412 — Science Release
A "Dragon" on the Surface of Titan
14 April 2004: New images of unsurpassed clarity have been obtained with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) of formations on the surface of Titan, the largest moon in the Saturnian system. They were made by an international research team [1] during recent commissioning observations with the "Simultaneous Differential Imager (SDI)", a novel optical device, just installed at the NACO Adaptive Optics instrument [2]. With the high-contrast SDI camera, it is possible to obtain extremely sharp images in three colours simultaneously. Although mainly conceived for exoplanet imaging, this device is also very useful for observations of objects with thick atmospheres in the solar system like Titan. Peering at the same time through a narrow, unobscured near-infrared spectral window in the dense methane atmosphere and an adjacent non-transparent waveband, images were obtained that are virtually uncontaminated by atmospheric components. They map the reflectivity of a large number of surface features in unprecedented detail. The images show a number of surface regions with very different reflectivity. Of particular interest are several large "dark" areas of uniformly low reflectivity. One possible interpretation is that they represent huge surface reservoirs of liquid hydrocarbons. Whatever the case, these new observations will be most useful for the planning of the delivery of the Huygens probe - now approaching the Saturn system on the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft and scheduled for descent to Titan's surface in early 2005.
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