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eso0311 — Science Release
Glowing Hot Transiting Exoplanet Discovered
22 April 2003: More than 100 exoplanets in orbit around stars other than the Sun have been found so far. But while their orbital periods and distances from their central stars are well known, their true masses cannot be determined with certainty, only lower limits. This fundamental limitation is inherent in the common observational method to discover exoplanets - the measurements of small and regular changes in the central star's velocity, caused by the planet's gravitational pull as it orbits the star. However, in two cases so far, it has been found that the exoplanet's orbit happens to be positioned in such a way that the planet moves in front of the stellar disk, as seen from the Earth. This "transit" event causes a small and temporary dip in the star's brightness, as the planet covers a small part of its surface, which can be observed. The additional knowledge of the spatial orientation of the planetary orbit then permits a direct determination of the planet's true mass. Now, a group of German astronomers [1] have found a third star in which a planet, somewhat larger than Jupiter, but only half as massive, moves in front of the central star every 28.5 hours . The crucial observation of this solar-type star, designated OGLE-TR-3 [2] was made with the high-dispersion UVES spectrograph on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). It is the exoplanet with the shortest period found so far and it is very close to the star, only 3.5 million km away. The hemisphere that faces the star must be extremely hot, about 2000 °C and the planet is obviously losing its atmosphere at high rate.
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eso0310 — Science Release
Really Hot Stars
9 April 2003: Quite a few of the most beautiful objects in the Universe are still shrouded in mystery. Even though most of the nebulae of gas and dust in our vicinity are now rather well understood, there are some which continue to puzzle astronomers. This is the case of a small number of unusual nebulae that appear to be the subject of strong heating - in astronomical terminology, they present an amazingly "high degree of excitation." This is because they contain significant amounts of ions, i.e., atoms that have lost one or more of their electrons. Depending on the atoms involved and the number of electrons lost, this process bears witness to the strength of the radiation or to the impact of energetic particles. But what are the sources of that excitation? Could it be energetic stars or perhaps some kind of exotic objects inside these nebulae? How do these peculiar objects fit into the current picture of universal evolution? New observations of a number of such unusual nebulae have recently been obtained with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). In a dedicated search for the origin of their individual characteristics, a team of astronomers - mostly from the Institute of Astrophysics & Geophysics in Liège (Belgium) [1] - have secured the first detailed, highly revealing images of four highly ionized nebulae in the Magellanic Clouds, two small satellite galaxies of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, only a few hundred thousand light-years away. In three nebulae, they succeeded in identifying the sources of energetic radiation and to eludicate their exceptional properties: some of the hottest, most massive stars ever seen, some of which are double. With masses of more than 20 times that of the Sun and surface temperatures above 90 000 degrees, these stars are truly extreme.
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eso0308 — Organisation Release
"First Light" for HARPS at La Silla
27 March 2003: The initial commissioning period of the new HARPS spectrograph (High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher) of the 3.6-m telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory has been successfully accomplished in the period February 11 - 27, 2003. This new instrument is optimized to detect planets in orbit around other stars ("exoplanets") by means of accurate (radial) velocity measurements with an unequalled precision of 1 meter per second . This high sensitivity makes it possible to detect variations in the motion of a star at this level, caused by the gravitational pull of one or more orbiting planets, even relatively small ones. "First Light" occurred on February 11, 2003, during the first night of tests. The instrument worked flawlessly and was fine-tuned during subsequent nights, achieving the predicted performance already during this first test run. The measurement of accurate stellar radial velocities is a very efficient way to search for planets around other stars. More than one hundred extrasolar planets have so far been detected , providing an increasingly clear picture of a great diversity of exoplanetary system. However, current technical limitations have so far prevented the discovery around solar-type stars of exoplanets that are much less massive than Saturn, the second-largest planet in the solar system. HARPS will break through this barrier and will carry this fundamental exploration towards detection of exoplanets with masses like Uranus and Neptune. Moreover, in the case of low-mass stars - like Proxima Centauri - HARPS will have the unique capability to detect big "telluric" planets with only a few times the mass of the Earth. The HARPS instrument is being offered to the research community in the ESO member countries, already from October 2003.
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eso0305 — Science Release
Distant World in Peril Discovered from La Silla
22 January 2003: When, in a distant future, the Sun begins to expand and evolves into a "giant" star, the surface temperature on the Earth will rise dramatically and our home planet will eventually be incinerated by that central body. Fortunately for us, this dramatic event is several billion years away. However, that sad fate will befall another planet, just discovered in orbit about the giant star HD 47536, already within a few tens of millions of years. At a distance of nearly 400 light-years from us, it is the second-remotest planetary system discovered to date [1]. This is an interesting side-result of a major research project, now carried out by a European-Brazilian team of astronomers [2]. In the course of a three-year spectroscopic survey, they have observed about 80 giant stars in the southern sky with the advanced FEROS spectrograph on the 1.52-m telescope installed at the ESO La Silla Observatory (Chile). It is one of these stars that has just been found to host a giant planet. This is only the fourth such case known and with a diameter of about 33 million km (or 23.5 times that of our Sun), HD 47536 is by far the largest of those giant stars [1]. The distance of the planet from the star is still of the order of 300 million km (or twice the distance of the Earth from the Sun), a safe margin now, but this will not always be so. The orbital period is 712 days, i.e., somewhat less than two Earth years, and the planet's mass is 5 - 10 times that of Jupiter. The presence of exoplanets in orbit around giant stars, some of which will eventually perish into their central star (be "cannibalized"), provides a possible explanation of the anomalous abundance of certain chemical elements that is observed in the atmospheres of some stars. This interesting discovery bodes well for coming observations of exoplanetary systems with new, more powerful instruments, like HARPS to be installed next year at the ESO 3.6-m telescope on La Silla, and also the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) now being commissioned at Paranal.
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eso0304 — Science Release
Isolated Star-Forming Cloud Discovered in Intracluster Space
16 January 2003: At a distance of some 50 million light-years, the Virgo Cluster is the nearest galaxy cluster. It is located in the zodiacal constellation of the same name (The Virgin) and is a large and dense assembly of hundreds of galaxies. The "intracluster" space between the Virgo galaxies is permeated by hot X-ray emitting gas and, as has become clear recently, by a sparse "intracluster population of stars". So far, stars have been observed to form in the luminous parts of galaxies. The most massive young stars are often visible indirectly by the strong emission from surrounding cocoons of hot gas, which is heated by the intense radiation from the embedded stars. These "HII regions" (pronounced "Eitch-Two" and so named because of their content of ionized hydrogen) may be very bright and they often trace the beautiful spiral arms seen in disk galaxies like our own Milky Way. New observations by the Japanese 8-m Subaru telescope and the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) have now shown that massive stars can also form in isolation, far from the luminous parts of galaxies [1]. During a most productive co-operation between astronomers working at these two world-class telescopes, a compact HII region has been discovered at the very boundary between the outer halo of a Virgo cluster galaxy and Virgo intracluster space. This cloud is illuminated and heated by a few hot and massive young stars. The estimated total mass of the stars in the cloud is only a few hundred times that of the Sun. Such an object is rare at the present epoch. However, there may have been more in the past, at which time they were perhaps responsible for the formation of a fraction of the intracluster stellar population in clusters of galaxies. Massive stars in such isolated HII regions will explode as supernovae at the end of their short lives, and enrich the intracluster medium with heavy elements. Observations of two other Virgo cluster galaxies, Messier 86 and Messier 84, indicate the presence of other isolated HII regions, thus suggesting that isolated star formation may occur more generally in galaxies. If so, this process may provide a natural explanation to the current riddle why some young stars are found high up in the halo of our own Milky Way galaxy, far from the star-forming clouds in the main plane.
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eso0303 — Science Release
Discovery of Nearest Known Brown Dwarf
13 January 2003: A team of European astronomers [1], [2] has discovered a Brown Dwarf object (a 'failed' star) less than 12 light-years from the Sun. It is the nearest yet known. Now designated Epsilon Indi B, it is a companion to a well-known bright star in the southern sky, Epsilon Indi (now "Epsilon Indi A"), previously thought to be single. The binary system is one of the twenty nearest stellar systems to the Sun. The brown dwarf was discovered from the comparatively rapid motion across the sky which it shares with its brighter companion : the pair move a full lunar diameter in less than 400 years. It was first identified using digitised archival photographic plates from the SuperCOSMOS Sky Surveys (SSS) and confirmed using data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS). Follow-up observations with the near-infrared sensitive SOFI instrument on the ESO 3.5-m New Technology Telescope (NTT) at the La Silla Observatory confirmed its nature and has allowed measurements of its physical properties. Epsilon Indi B has a mass just 45 times that of Jupiter, the largest planet in the Solar System, and a surface temperature of only 1000 °C. It belongs to the so-called 'T dwarf' category of objects which straddle the domain between stars and giant planets. Epsilon Indi B is the nearest and brightest T dwarf known. Future studies of the new object promise to provide astronomers with important new clues as to the formation and evolution of these exotic celestial bodies, at the same time yielding interesting insights into the border zone between planets and stars.
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eso0236 — Organisation Release
New Vistas Open with MIDI at the VLT Interferometer
18 December 2002: Following several weeks of around-the-clock work, a team of astronomers and engineers from Germany, the Netherlands, France and ESO [2] has successfully performed the first observations with the MID-Infrared interferometric instrument (MIDI), a new, extremely powerful instrument just installed in the underground laboratory of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) at the Paranal Observatory (Chile). In the early morning of December 15, 2002, two of the 8.2 m VLT unit telescopes (ANTU and MELIPAL) were pointed towards the southern star Epsilon Carinae and the two light beams were directed via the complex intervening optics system towards MIDI. After a few hours of tuning and optimization, strong and stable interferometric fringes were obtained, indicating that all VLTI components - from telescopes to the new instrument - were working together perfectly. Two more stars were observed before sunrise, further proving the stability of the entire system. The first observations with MIDI mark one more important step towards full and regular operation of the VLT Interferometer [3]. They are a result of five years of determined efforts within a concerted technology project, based on a close collaboration between ESO and several European research institutes (see below). Now opening great research vistas, they also represent several "firsts" in observational astrophysics, together amounting to a real breakthrough in the field of astronomical interferometry.
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eso0234 — Science Release
Deepest Infrared View of the Universe
11 December 2002: An international team of astronomers [2] has made the deepest-ever near-infrared Ks-band image of the sky, using the ISAAC multi-mode instrument on the 8.2-m VLT ANTU telescope. For this, the VLT was pointed for more than 100 hours under optimal observing conditions at the Hubble Deep Field South (HDF-S) and obtained images in three near-infrared filters. The resulting images reveal extremely distant galaxies, which appear at infrared wavelengths, but are barely detected in the deepest optical images acquired with the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Astronomer Marijn Franx from the University of Leiden and leader of the team concludes: "These results demonstrate that very deep observations in the near-infrared are essential to obtain a proper census of the earliest phases of the universe. The new VLT images have opened a new research domain which has not been observationally accessible before". The HDF-S is a tiny field on the sky in the southern constellation Tucana (The Toucan) - only about 1% of the area of the full moon. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (HST) observed it with a total exposure time of about 1 week, yielding the deepest optical images ever taken of the sky, similar to those made earlier on the Hubble Deep Field North (HDF-N). The VLT infrared images of the same field were obtained in the course of a major research project, the Faint InfraRed Extragalactic Survey (FIRES). They were made at wavelengths up to 2.3 µm where the HST is not competitive.
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eso0232 — Science Release
How Small are Small Stars Really?
29 November 2002: At a distance of only 4.2 light-years, Proxima Centauri is the nearest star to the Sun currently known [2]. It is visible as an 11-magnitude object in the southern constellation of Centaurus and is the faintest member of a triple system, together with Alpha Centauri, the brightest (double) star in this constellation. Proxima Centauri is a very-low-mass star, in fact barely massive enough to burn hydrogen to helium in its interior. It is about seven times smaller than the Sun, and the surface temperature is "only" about 3000 degrees, about half of that of our own star. Consequently, it is also much fainter - the intrinsic brightness is only 1/150th of that of our Sun. Low-mass stars are very interesting objects , also because the physical conditions in their interiors have much in common with those of giant planets, like Jupiter in our solar system. A determination of the sizes of the smallest stars has been impossible until now because of their general faintness and lack of adequate instrumentation. However, astronomers have long been keen to move forward in this direction, since such measurements would provide indirect, crucial information about the behaviour of matter under extreme conditions. When the first observations with the VLT Interferometer (VLTI), combining the light from two of the 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes (ANTU and MELIPAL), were made one year ago, interferometric measurements were also obtained of Proxima Centauri . They formed part of the VLTI commissioning and the data were soon released to the ESO community, cf. the special website. Now, an international team of astronomers from Switzerland, France and ESO/Chile has successfully analysed these observations by means of newly developed, advanced software. For the first time ever, they obtained a highly accurate measurement of the size of such a small star. Three other small stars were also measured and the results are in excellent agreement with stellar theory, indicating that our present understanding of the structure and composition of very small stars is reasonably correct . More VLTI observations are soon to follow, eventually also of even smaller objects, like Brown Dwarfs.
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