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eso0428 — Science Release
Is This Speck of Light an Exoplanet?
10 September 2004: Is this newly discovered feeble point of light the long-sought bona-fide image of an exoplanet? A research paper by an international team of astronomers [2] provides sound arguments in favour, but the definitive answer is now awaiting further observations. On several occasions during the past years, astronomical images revealed faint objects, seen near much brighter stars. Some of these have been thought to be those of orbiting exoplanets, but after further study, none of them could stand up to the real test. Some turned out to be faint stellar companions, others were entirely unrelated background stars. This one may well be different. In April of this year, the team of European and American astronomers detected a faint and very red point of light very near (at 0.8 arcsec angular distance) a brown-dwarf object, designated 2MASSWJ1207334-393254. Also known as "2M1207", this is a "failed star", i.e. a body too small for major nuclear fusion processes to have ignited in its interior and now producing energy by contraction. It is a member of the TW Hydrae stellar association located at a distance of about 230 light-years. The discovery was made with the adaptive-optics supported NACO facility [3] at the 8.2-m VLT Yepun telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). The feeble object is more than 100 times fainter than 2M1207 and its near-infrared spectrum was obtained with great efforts in June 2004 by NACO, at the technical limit of the powerful facility. This spectrum shows the signatures of water molecules and confirms that the object must be comparatively small and light. None of the available observations contradict that it may be an exoplanet in orbit around 2M1207. Taking into account the infrared colours and the spectral data, evolutionary model calculations point to a 5 jupiter-mass planet in orbit around 2M1207. Still, they do not yet allow a clear-cut decision about the real nature of this intriguing object. Thus, the astronomers refer to it as a "Giant Planet Candidate Companion (GPCC)" [4]. Observations will now be made to ascertain whether the motion in the sky of GPCC is compatible with that of a planet orbiting 2M1207. This should become evident within 1-2 years at the most.
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eso0426 — Organisation Release
SINFONI Opens with Upbeat Chords
24 August 2004: The European Southern Observatory, the Max-Planck-Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (Garching, Germany) and the Nederlandse Onderzoekschool Voor Astronomie (Leiden, The Netherlands), and with them all European astronomers, are celebrating the successful accomplishment of "First Light" for the Adaptive Optics (AO) assisted SINFONI ("Spectrograph for INtegral Field Observation in the Near-Infrared") instrument, just installed on ESO's Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory (Chile). This is the first facility of its type ever installed on an 8-m class telescope, now providing exceptional observing capabilities for the imaging and spectroscopic studies of very complex sky regions, e.g. stellar nurseries and black-hole environments, also in distant galaxies. Following smooth assembly at the 8.2-m VLT Yepun telescope of SINFONI's two parts, the Adaptive Optics Module that feeds the SPIFFI spectrograph, the "First Light" spectrum of a bright star was recorded with SINFONI in the early evening of July 9, 2004. The following thirteen nights served to evaluate the performance of the new instrument and to explore its capabilities by test observations on a selection of exciting astronomical targets. They included the Galactic Centre region, already imaged with the NACO AO-instrument on the same telescope. Unprecedented high-angular resolution spectra and images were obtained of stars in the immediate vicinity of the massive central black hole. During the night of July 15 - 16, SINFONI recorded a flare from this black hole in great detail. Other interesting objects observed during this period include galaxies with active nuclei (e.g., the Circinus Galaxy and NGC 7469), a merging galaxy system (NGC 6240) and a young starforming galaxy pair at redshift 2 (BX 404/405). These first results were greeted with enthusiasm by the team of astronomers and engineers [2] from the consortium of German and Dutch Institutes and ESO who have worked on the development of SINFONI for nearly 7 years. The work on SINFONI at Paranal included successful commissioning in June 2004 of the Adaptive Optics Module built by ESO, during which exceptional test images were obtained of the main-belt asteroid (22) Kalliope and its moon. Moreover, the ability was demonstrated to correct the atmospheric turbulence by means of even very faint "guide" objects (magnitude 17.5), crucial for the observation of astronomical objects in many parts of the sky. SPIFFI - SPectrometer for Infrared Faint Field Imaging - was developed at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE) in Garching (Germany), in a collaboration with the Nederlandse Onderzoekschool Voor Astronomie (NOVA) in Leiden and the Netherlands Foundation for Research in Astronomy (ASTRON), and ESO.
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eso0412 — Science Release
A "Dragon" on the Surface of Titan
14 April 2004: New images of unsurpassed clarity have been obtained with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) of formations on the surface of Titan, the largest moon in the Saturnian system. They were made by an international research team [1] during recent commissioning observations with the "Simultaneous Differential Imager (SDI)", a novel optical device, just installed at the NACO Adaptive Optics instrument [2]. With the high-contrast SDI camera, it is possible to obtain extremely sharp images in three colours simultaneously. Although mainly conceived for exoplanet imaging, this device is also very useful for observations of objects with thick atmospheres in the solar system like Titan. Peering at the same time through a narrow, unobscured near-infrared spectral window in the dense methane atmosphere and an adjacent non-transparent waveband, images were obtained that are virtually uncontaminated by atmospheric components. They map the reflectivity of a large number of surface features in unprecedented detail. The images show a number of surface regions with very different reflectivity. Of particular interest are several large "dark" areas of uniformly low reflectivity. One possible interpretation is that they represent huge surface reservoirs of liquid hydrocarbons. Whatever the case, these new observations will be most useful for the planning of the delivery of the Huygens probe - now approaching the Saturn system on the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft and scheduled for descent to Titan's surface in early 2005.
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eso0226 — Science Release
Surfing a Black Hole
16 October 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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