Awesome Exoplanet Imager Begins Hunt for Alien Worlds

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A new instrument attached to one of the most powerful telescopes in the world has been switched on and acquired its ‘first light’ images of alien star systems and Saturn’s moon Titan.

The Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (or SPHIRES) instrument has been recently installed at the ESO’s Very Large Telescope’s already impressive suite of sophisticated instrumentation. The VLT is located in the ultra-dry high-altitude climes of the Atacama Desert in Chile.

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In the observation above, an ‘Eye of Sauron‘-like dust ring surrounding the star HR 4796A in the southern constellation of Centaurus, a testament to the sheer power of the multiple technique SPHIRES will use to acquire precision views of directly-imaged exoplanets.

The biggest problem with trying to directly image a world orbiting close to its parent star is that of glare; stars are many magnitudes brighter that the reflected light from its orbiting exoplanet, so how the heck are you supposed to gain enough contrast between the bright star and exoplanet to resolve the two? The SPHIRES instrument is using a combination of three sophisticated techniques to remove a star’s glare and zero-in on its exoplanetary targets.

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This infrared image of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, was one of the first produced by the SPHERE instrument soon after it was installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in May 2014.
ESO

The first technique, known as adaptive optics, is employed by the VLT itself. By firing a laser into the Earth’s atmosphere during the observation, a gauge on the turbulence in the upper atmospheric gases can be measured and the effects of which can be removed from the imagery. Any blurriness caused by our thick atmosphere can be adjusted for.

Next up is a precision coronograph inside the instrument that blocks the light from the target star. By doing this, any glare can be removed and any exoplanet in orbit may be bright enough to spot.

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But the third technique, which really teases out any exoplanet signal, is the detection of different polarizations of light from the star system. The polarization of infrared light being generated by the star and the infrared glow from the exoplanet are very subtle. SPHIRES can differentiate between the two, thereby further boosting the observation’s contrast.

“SPHERE is a very complex instrument. Thanks to the hard work of the many people who were involved in its design, construction and installation it has already exceeded our expectations. Wonderful!” said Jean-Luc Beuzit, of the Institut de Planétologie et d’Astrophysique de Grenoble, France and Principal Investigator of SPHERE, in an ESO press release.

The speed and sheer power of SPHIRES will be an obvious boon to astronomers zooming in on distant exoplanets, aiding our understanding of these strange new worlds.

The star HR 7581 (Iota Sgr) was observed in SPHERE survey mode (parallel observation in the near infrared with the dual imaging camera and the integral field spectrograph ). A very low mass star, more than 4000 times fainter that its parent star, was discovered orbiting Iota Sgr at a tiny separation of 0.24". This is a vital demonstration of the power of SPHERE to image faint objects very close to bright ones.
ESO
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