Space

First Light From Black Hole Innovation Makes Remarkable Discovery

According to researchers lead by the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, a newly installed instrument for zooming in on black holes at ESO’s Very Large Telescope made a surprising discovery from the first set of data.

The new innovation, known as GRAVITY, is the most powerful interferometer of its kind. Using a technique known as interferometry, the instrument combines light from multiple telescopes to create a virtual telescope the length of two football fields across. This allows scientists to detect much finer detail in space objects then would be possible with a single telescope. Scientists and engineers are thrilled with the first light performance.

GRAVITY discovers new double star in Orion Trapezium Cluster

As part of the first observations with the new GRAVITY instrument the team looked closely at the bright, young stars known as the Trapezium Cluster, located in the heart of the Orion star-forming region. Already, from these first data, GRAVITY made a discovery: one of the components of the cluster (Theta1 Orionis F, lower left) was found to be a double star for the first time. The brighter double star Theta1 Orionis C (lower right) is also well seen. The background image comes from the ISAAC instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The views of two of the stars from GRAVITY, shown as inserts, reveal far finer detail than could be detected with the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Image credit: ESO

“During its first light, and for the first time in the history of long baseline interferometry in optical astronomy, GRAVITY could make exposures of several minutes, more than a hundred times longer than previously possible,” said team member at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, Frank Eisenhauer.

“GRAVITY will open optical interferometry to observations of much fainter objects, and push the sensitivity and accuracy of high angular resolution astronomy to new limits, far beyond what is currently possible,” Eisenhauer added.

As part of the first observations, astronomers probed the Trapezium Cluster which is located at the heart of the Orion star forming nebula. Armed with the new instrument, astronomers found that one of the stars in the cluster was actually a binary system. No other telescope has been able to uncover such detail.

GRAVITY will have applications all across astronomy but its main purpose will be to probe the area around black holes – more specifically the supermassive black hole at the core of our Milky Way.

And it appears that things will only get better. The first light is the culmination of only one stage, installing GRAVITY within the Very Large Telescope Interferometer architecture. These observations used the 1.8 meter auxillary telescopes – plans to use GRAVITY with the 8 meter VLT units are planned for late 2016.

Materials provided by European Southern Observatory.

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