Precision Integrated-Optics Near-infrared Imaging ExpeRiment
PIONIER, or the Precision Integrated-Optics Near-infrared Imaging ExpeRiment is an instrument on the Interferometer of the Very Large Telescope (VLTI), together with AMBER and MIDI. PIONIER represents a huge milestone for the VLT. In October 2010, for the first time, the beams from four telescopes were recombined in this instrument, thus achieving the full potential of the VLTI.
These means that PIONIER can increase the efficiency of observing the Universe as more baselines can be used at once. Each pair of telescopes from which light is combined constitutes a baseline, and the length of the baseline is determined by the separation of the telescope pair. “The greater the number of baselines, the more information you get on the morphology of your image, e.g., the level of detail for the objects,” says Julien Milli, ESO astronomer at Paranal. PIONIER is the only instrument to have six potential baselines available. To make a musical analogy: the object represents the complete song, and each baseline represents one of the notes that make up the piece. The more baselines we have, the more notes we have, and the more complete our version of the song is.
Another highlight of PIONIER is its spectral coverage. “You can spread the spectrum of your signal over three channels and therefore get information on the spectral dependence of your image, which is the intensity as a function of the wavelength. This helps us to characterise the warm dust around a star, providing relevant insights on the formation process,” says Julien Milli.
PIONIER’s huge capacity for capturing detail allows astronomers to study distant objects, as well as regions where planets or stars may be forming, with an unprecedented level of sensitivity and precision.
How does PIONIER work? It is an interferometer, so once the light reaches the instrument, it is sent across an optical circuit, smaller than a credit card, that brings the light waves from up to four different telescopes together in a very precise way so that they create an interference pattern. An interference pattern consists of fringes, i.e. alternative dark and bright stripes with a given contrast between them, so the final result is not a conventional image.
Science highlights with PIONIER
The authoritative technical specifications as offered for astronomical observations are available from the Science Operation page.