FLAMES — Fibre Large Array Multi Element Spectrograph


On the side of the Very Large Telescope’s second Unit Telescope, this box contains FLAMES, the OzPoz robotic fibre positioner, and the GIRAFFE spectrograph.

FLAMES (Fibre Large Array Multi Element Spectrograph) is almost a mythological monster: MEDUSA, one of three systems which feed GIRAFFE, the main spectrograph for FLAMES, has more than 130 fibres. Each of these fibres is positioned very precisely on a metal plate by the robotic arm of OzPoz. “The light from each star is collected by the corresponding fibre and sent to a spectrograph,” explains Dimitri Gadotti, Instrument Scientist for FLAMES. “In this way, FLAMES is able to take spectra of a large number of astronomical objects at the same time.


The OzPoz robotic arm is setting MEDUSA’s fibres at the
expected position for over 100 stars.

Apart from MEDUSA, GIRAFFE can also be fed by two different integral field devices: IFU (Integral Field Unit) and ARGUS. An integral field unit can be visualised as a camera where each pixel is an individual spectrograph. So it can take images and, at the same time, the spectra of every part of the field of view and not only of selected targets. This is especially useful in very crowded fields.

A spectrograph is basically a kind of sophisticated prism: it is an instrument able to decompose the light into its component wavelengths. Instead of a simple rainbow, the output is a spectrum which is recorded on a CCD detector and finally saved in a computer file for further processing and analysis, allowing the astronomer to measure the intensity of the light at each wavelength or colour precisely.

But FLAMES, the multi-object intermediate/high resolution spectrograph installed on the second Unit Telescope (UT2) at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), is far more complex as it feeds two spectrographs: the main intermediate resolution GIRAFFE and the high resolution UVES (Ultraviolet and Visual Echelle Spectrograph, also installed on UT2).

With UVES, a much higher resolution can be achieved than with GIRAFFE, but it can only observe a maximum of eight objects at the same time and in the red part of the visible light region. The resolution of a spectrograph is the minimum difference in wavelength that can be detected for a specific wavelength of light. It is determined by the dispersion characteristics of the prism-like device.

Spectra contain information about the motions, ages and chemical content of stars, as well as properties of the gaseous component,” explains Gadotti. “This makes FLAMES the perfect tool to study stellar populations and the structure and evolution of stellar systems; from our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and the nearby Magellanic Clouds, to more distant galaxies”.


The two plates each hold over 130 fibres. The
vertical plate is ready for observations at the
focus of the telescope, while  the horizontal one
is being prepared by the OzPoz fibre positioner.


Maps showing the motion of gas and stars within
three very distant galaxies. The areas marked in
red move away from us, those in blue towards us.

Science Highlights

  • By combining spectral images of very distant galaxies from FLAMES+ARGUS with high-resolution images from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers could reconstruct the motions of stars within these ancient galaxies, thereby probing the history of galaxy formation and evolution at a time when the Sun did not exist. The maps showing the motions within three of these galaxies are displayed in the image on the side (eso0910).

  • FLAMES played a key role in determining that the central bulge of our galaxy, the Milky Way, has a complex “peanut” shape (eso1339).

  • By using FLAMES to measure many planetary nebulae in the giant galaxy M87, astronomers realised that the halo surrounding that galaxy is actually much smaller than expected: it has been trimmed down by an effect (eso0919) that is still not understood.

  • By studying many stars in a globular cluster, astronomers using FLAMES determined that the amount of sodium contained in a star is a very strong predictor of how they end their lives (eso1323).

  • By surveying many stars with FLAMES, astronomers discovered several weird — and interesting — stars: for example, an isolated star that is three million times brighter than the Sun, but, unlike  all the other known super-stars (eso1117), not embedded in a star cluster; the fastest rotating star (eso1147); and a mysterious magnetar — a star so massive that it should have died forming a black hole, but instead converted into an unusual neutron star with an very strong magnetic field (eso1034).

  • List of the scientific papers produced by FLAMES, via the ESO library TelBib database.

FLAMES Technical Specifications

The authoritative technical specifications as offered for astronomical observations are available from the Science Operation page.

Location:

Paranal

Telescope:

VLT UT2

Focus:

Nasmyth A

Type:

Multi-object integral field spectrograph

Wavelength coverage:

370–950 nm

Spatial resolution:

Not applicable

Spectral resolution:

7500–30 000 with GIRAFFE
40 000 with UVES

First light

July 2002 (GIRAFFE)

Images taken with the instrument:

Link

Images of the instrument:

Link   


A raw image from FLAMES with MEDUSA and GIRAFFE

The OzPoz robotic arm has positioned each of the 130 MEDUSA fibres on a different star in a cluster. The light from each fibre is dispersed by the GIRAFFE spectrograph, forming a spectrum that shows the intensity of the light for each constituent colour. On the image, each spectrum appears as an individual vertical line. Some are brighter as they correspond to brighter stars.


A raw image from FLAMES with ARGUS and GIRAFFE

Each of the pixels of the ARGUS system is fitted with an optical fibre that brings the light into the GIRAFFE spectrograph, which disperses its individual colours to form a spectrum. Each spectrum appears as an individual vertical line. As the position of each fibre in the original image is known, data analysis software can re-assign each spectra to its original pixel, forming a kind of image where each pixel has the full details of the spectrum. In the case of this image, the telescope pointed ARGUS at a galaxy and the resulting spectra were used to build one of the images at the top of this page.