Pressemitteilungen

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eso0232 — Pressemitteilung Wissenschaft
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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eso0228 — Pressemitteilung Wissenschaft
A Glimpse of the Young Milky Way
30. Oktober 2002: A faint star in the southern Milky Way, designated HE 0107-5240 , has been found to consist virtually only of hydrogen and helium . It has the lowest abundance of heavier elements ever observed , only 1/200,000 of that of the Sun - 20 times less than the previous record-holding star. This is the result of a major ongoing research project by an international team of astronomers [2]. It is based on a decade-long survey of the southern sky, with detailed follow-up observations by means of the powerful UV-Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) on the 8.2-m VLT KUEYEN telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory in Chile. This significant discovery now opens a new window towards the early times when the Milky Way galaxy was young, possibly still in the stage of formation. It proves that, contrary to most current theories, comparatively light stars like HE 0107-5240 (with 80% of the mass of the Sun) may form in environments (nearly) devoid of heavier elements. Since some years, astronomers have been desperately searching for stars of the very first stellar generation in the Milky Way, consisting only of hydrogen and helium from the Big Bang. None have been detected so far and doubts have arisen that they exist at all. The present discovery provides new hope that it will ultimately be possible to find such stellar relics from the young Universe and thereby to study "unpolluted" Big Bang material.
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eso0226 — Pressemitteilung Wissenschaft
Surfing a Black Hole
16. Oktober 2002: An international team of astronomers [2], lead by researchers at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) , has directly observed an otherwise normal star orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. Ten years of painstaking measurements have been crowned by a series of unique images obtained by the Adaptive Optics (AO) NAOS-CONICA (NACO) instrument [3] on the 8.2-m VLT YEPUN telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory. It turns out that earlier this year the star approached the central Black Hole to within 17 light-hours - only three times the distance between the Sun and planet Pluto - while travelling at no less than 5000 km/sec. Previous measurements of the velocities of stars near the center of the Milky Way and variable X-ray emission from this area have provided the strongest evidence so far of the existence of a central Black Hole in our home galaxy and, implicitly, that the dark mass concentrations seen in many nuclei of other galaxies probably are also supermassive black holes. However, it has not yet been possible to exclude several alternative configurations. In a break-through paper appearing in the research journal Nature on October 17th, 2002, the present team reports their exciting results, including high-resolution images that allow tracing two-thirds of the orbit of a star designated "S2" . It is currently the closest observable star to the compact radio source and massive black hole candidate "SgrA*" ("Sagittarius A") at the very center of the Milky Way. The orbital period is just over 15 years. The new measurements exclude with high confidence that the central dark mass consists of a cluster of unusual stars or elementary particles, and leave little doubt of the presence of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy in which we live.
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eso0225 — Organisatorische Pressemitteilung
Four Eyes Are Better
26. September 2002: During the nights of September 15/16 and 16/17, 2002, preliminary tests were successfully carried out during which the light beams from all four VLT 8.2-m Unit Telescopes (UTs) at the ESO Paranal Observatory were successively combined, two by two, to produce interferometric fringes . This marks a next important step towards the full implementation of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) that will ultimately provide European astronomers with unequalled opportunities for exciting front-line research projects. It is no simple matter to ensure that the quartet of ANTU, KUEYEN, MELIPAL and YEPUN , each a massive giant with a suite of computer-controlled active mirrors, can work together by sending beams of light towards a common focal point via a complex system of compensating optics. Yet, in the span of only two nights, the four VLT telescopes were successfully "paired" to do exactly this, yielding a first tantalizing glimpse of the future possibilities with this new science machine. While there is still a long way ahead to the routine production of extremely sharp, interferometric images, the present test observations have allowed to demonstrate directly the 2D-resolution capacity of the VLTI by means of multiple measurements of a distant star. Much valuable experience was gained during those two nights and the ESO engineers and scientists are optimistic that the extensive test observations with the numerous components of the VLTI will continue to progress rapidly. Five intense, technical test periods are scheduled during the next six months; some of these with the Mid-Infrared interferometric instrument for the VLTI (MIDI) which will soon be installed at Paranal. Later in 2003, the first of the four moveable VLTI 1.8-m Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs) will be put in place on the top of the mountain; together they will permit regular interferometric observations, also without having to use the large UTs.
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eso0215 — Pressemitteilung Wissenschaft
Ultrabass Sounds of the Giant Star xi Hya
15. Mai 2002: About 30 years ago, astronomers realised that the Sun resonates like a giant musical instrument with well-defined periods (frequencies). It forms a sort of large, spherical organ pipe. The energy that excites these sound waves comes from the turbulent region just below the Sun's visible surface.
Observations of the solar sound waves (known as "helioseismology") have resulted in enormous progress in the exploration of the interior of the Sun, otherwise hidden from view. As is the case on Earth, seismic techniques can be applied and the detailed interpretation of the observed oscillation periods has provided quite accurate information about the structure and motions inside the Sun, our central star. It has now also become possible to apply this technique to some solar-type stars. The first observations concerned the northern star eta Bootis. Last year, extensive and much more accurate observations with the 1.2-m Swiss telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory proved that Alpha Centauri , a solar "twin", behaves very much like the Sun, and that some of the periods are quite similar to those in the Sun. These new observational data were of a superb quality, and that study marked a true break-through in the new research field of "asteroseismology" (seismology of the stars) for solar-type stars. But what about other types of stars, for instance those that are much larger than the Sun?
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