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eso0316 — Science Release
Flattest Star Ever Seen
11 June 2003: To a first approximation, planets and stars are round. Think of the Earth we live on. Think of the Sun, the nearest star, and how it looks in the sky. But if you think more about it, you realize that this is not completely true. Due to its daily rotation, the solid Earth is slightly flattened ("oblate") - its equatorial radius is some 21 km (0.3%) larger than the polar one. Stars are enormous gaseous spheres and some of them are known to rotate quite fast, much faster than the Earth. This would obviously cause such stars to become flattened. But how flat? Recent observations with the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory have allowed a group of astronomers [1] to obtain by far the most detailed view of the general shape of a fast-spinning hot star, Achernar (Alpha Eridani) , the brightest in the southern constellation Eridanus (The River). They find that Achernar is much flatter than expected - its equatorial radius is more than 50% larger than the polar one! In other words, this star is shaped very much like the well-known spinning-top toy, so popular among young children. The high degree of flattening measured for Achernar - a first in observational astrophysics - now poses an unprecedented challenge for theoretical astrophysics . The effect cannot be reproduced by common models of stellar interiors unless certain phenomena are incorporated, e.g. meridional circulation on the surface ("north-south streams") and non-uniform rotation at different depths inside the star. As this example shows, interferometric techniques will ultimately provide very detailed information about the shapes, surface conditions and interior structure of stars.
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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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eso0225 — Organisation Release
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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