Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Adaptive optics at Europe's flagship telescope looks back on a decade of successful observations

25.11.2011
Ten years ago today, NACO became operational: the first adaptive optics system of ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT). Adaptive Optics allows astronomers to remove the stars' twinkling – disturbances due to the Earth's atmosphere –, allowing for extremely sharp images of celestial objects.

NACO looks back on a decade of scientific results, including the first direct image of an exoplanet and insight into the surroundings of our home galaxy's central black hole.


This near-infrared image of the active galaxy NGC 1097, obtained with NACO in 2005, discloses in unprecedented detail a complex network of filaments linking the outer regions with the galaxy's center. These observations provide astronomers with new insights on how super-massive black holes lurking inside galaxies get fed. Credit: ESO, A. Prieto (MPIA, IAC)

For non-astronomers, the twinkling of the stars can be quite romantic. For astronomers, it is the outward sign of a fundamental problem: As light passes through turbulent areas of the Earth's atmosphere, it is deflected in uneven and ever-changing ways. What should be a sharp image of, say, a star in a telescope instead becomes a diffuse disk as the star's image dances to and fro, or splits into several partial images.

That is why, before adaptive optics, astronomers were forced to use space telescopes or else to wait for exceptionally good atmospheric conditions – which happen only a few times, if at all, in any given year – to obtain sharp images of celestial objects.

At least for images in the near-infrared, at slightly longer wavelengths that those of visible light, astronomers can also address the problem directly, using Adaptive Optics (AO): The ever-changing image is analyzed by a fast computer which, in real time, controls a deformable mirror. As the image dances and splits, the mirror twists warps and to compensate, restoring sharpness.

The NACO instrument was the first Adaptive Optics system at the VLT, the flagship facility for European ground-based astronomy. Installed on one of the VLT's four 8,2 metre telescopes in 2001, it commenced scientific operations ("first light" in astronomical parlance) on November 25, 2001.

NACO was not the first AO instrument on an 8-10 metre class telescope, but it is arguably one of the most successful ones. With its help, the VLT immediately achieved a resolution surpassing that of the Hubble Space Telescope – at least at infrared wavelengths, where NACO operates. Scientific results from NACO run the gamut from solar system research to the most distant galaxies:

The instrument revealed the infrared glow of individual volcanoes on Jupiter's moon Io, and obtained some of the first detailed surface and weather maps of Saturn's moon Titan, the largest moon in the Solar System. It also excelled at detecting and examining planets outside the solar system (exoplanets): A faint speck of light called 2M1207b was the first planet-sized object ever imaged in orbit around an object other than the Sun (in this case, a so-called brown dwarf – an object that is not quite a star, but larger than a planet).

In another first, NACO performed the first spectral analysis of a directly imaged exoplanet in orbit around a nearby star. This allowed astronomers to probe the atmosphere of the exoplanet HR 8799c for the presence of methane and carbon monoxide.

NACO's uniquely sharp infrared view also pierced the dust veil hiding the centre of the Milky Way. By tracing the orbit of a star around the Galactic center, NACO provided the strongest evidence yet for the presence of a central black hole in the centre of our home galaxy, with the mass of several million Suns.

When it came to young star clusters like the Arches cluster or RCW 38, NACO proved its worth by imaging separately hundreds of densely packed stars in the clusters' central regions. This provided astronomers with data to study the early phases of stellar evolution over the entire range of stellar masses, from stars with less than tenths of the mass of our Sun to stars with more than 100 solar masses.

NACO is a first generation VLT instrument, developed in a joint effort between French and German research institutes and ESO. Thanks to continuous upgrades over the past decade, it remains one of the preeminent Adaptive Optics instruments worldwide, enabling European astronomers to stay at the forefront of astronomical research. Several additional Adaptive Optics instruments have entered service at the VLT over the past decade. A number of new instruments are currently under development, and Adaptive Optics will be an integral part of the next generation of telescopes, including the 40 metre class European Extremely Large Telescope.

Contact information

Rainer Lenzen (principal investigator, CONICA)
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg
Phone: (+49|0) 6221 – 528 228
Email: lenzen@mpia.de
Wolfgang Brandner
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg
Phone: (+49|0) 6221 – 528 289
Email: brandner@mpia.de
Markus Pössel (public relations)
Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, Heidelberg
Phone: (+49|0) 6221 – 528 261
Email: pr@mpia.de
Background information
NACO is a first generation VLT instrument, developed in a joint effort between French and German research institutes and ESO. NACO is short for NAOS-CONICA, which acronyms in turn stand for the instrument's two sub-systems:

The Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System (NAOS) has been developed, with the support of Institut National des Sciences de lUnivers/Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (INSU/CNRS) by a French Consortium in collaboration with ESO. The French consortium consists of Office National d'Etudes et de Recherches Aèrospatiales (ONERA), Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG, formerly called Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Grenoble) and Observatoire de Paris: Laboratoire d'études spatiales et d'instrumentation en astrophysique (LESIA, formerly called DESPA) and DASGAL (which does not exist anymore). The Project Manager is Gérard Rousset (ONERA), the Instrument Scientist responsible is François Lacombe (Observatoire de Paris) and the Project Scientist is Anne-Marie Lagrange (Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble, OSUG, Université Joseph Fourier/CNRS).

The CONICA Near-Infrared CAmera has been developed by a German Consortium, with an extensive ESO collaboration. The Consortium consists of Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie (MPIA) (Heidelberg) and the Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE) (Garching). The Principal Investigator (PI) is Rainer Lenzen (MPIA), with Reiner Hofmann (MPE) as Co-Investigator.

Dr. Markus Pössel | Max-Planck-Institut
Further information:
http://www.mpia.de
http://www.mpia.de/Public/menu_q2e.php?Aktuelles/PR/2011/PR111125/PR_111125_en.html

More articles from Physics and Astronomy:

nachricht The material that obscures supermassive black holes
26.09.2017 | Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC)

nachricht Creative use of noise brings bio-inspired electronic improvement
26.09.2017 | American Institute of Physics

All articles from Physics and Astronomy >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: The fastest light-driven current source

Controlling electronic current is essential to modern electronics, as data and signals are transferred by streams of electrons which are controlled at high speed. Demands on transmission speeds are also increasing as technology develops. Scientists from the Chair of Laser Physics and the Chair of Applied Physics at Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) have succeeded in switching on a current with a desired direction in graphene using a single laser pulse within a femtosecond ¬¬ – a femtosecond corresponds to the millionth part of a billionth of a second. This is more than a thousand times faster compared to the most efficient transistors today.

Graphene is up to the job

Im Focus: LaserTAB: More efficient and precise contacts thanks to human-robot collaboration

At the productronica trade fair in Munich this November, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be presenting Laser-Based Tape-Automated Bonding, LaserTAB for short. The experts from Aachen will be demonstrating how new battery cells and power electronics can be micro-welded more efficiently and precisely than ever before thanks to new optics and robot support.

Fraunhofer ILT from Aachen relies on a clever combination of robotics and a laser scanner with new optics as well as process monitoring, which it has developed...

Im Focus: The pyrenoid is a carbon-fixing liquid droplet

Plants and algae use the enzyme Rubisco to fix carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere and converting it into biomass. Algae have figured out a way to increase the efficiency of carbon fixation. They gather most of their Rubisco into a ball-shaped microcompartment called the pyrenoid, which they flood with a high local concentration of carbon dioxide. A team of scientists at Princeton University, the Carnegie Institution for Science, Stanford University and the Max Plank Institute of Biochemistry have unravelled the mysteries of how the pyrenoid is assembled. These insights can help to engineer crops that remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere while producing more food.

A warming planet

Im Focus: Highly precise wiring in the Cerebral Cortex

Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.

The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...

Im Focus: Tiny lasers from a gallery of whispers

New technique promises tunable laser devices

Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

“Lasers in Composites Symposium” in Aachen – from Science to Application

19.09.2017 | Event News

I-ESA 2018 – Call for Papers

12.09.2017 | Event News

EMBO at Basel Life, a new conference on current and emerging life science research

06.09.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Goodbye, login. Hello, heart scan

26.09.2017 | Information Technology

The material that obscures supermassive black holes

26.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Ageless ears? Elderly barn owls do not become hard of hearing

26.09.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>