New SPHERE Exoplanet Imager Captures Ring of Dust Around a Nearby Star

First Posted: Jun 04, 2014 08:58 AM EDT

SPHERE, an instrument that's now mounted on the Very Large Telescope, is getting down to business. With its ability to use new, advanced techniques, it's showing astronomers more about nearby exoplanets, revealing a bit more about our universe.

SPHERE's main goal is to find and then characterize giant exoplanets that are orbiting nearby stars through direct imaging. This is somewhat unusual since most of the exoplanets currently known have been discovered using indirect techniques, such as radial velocity variations of the host star, or the dip in brightness of the star caused by a transiting exoplanet. Direct imagining is actually extremely challenging since the planets are both very close to their parent stars in the sky and also much fainter; in a normal image, even under the best conditions, the light from the star totally swamps the weak glow from the planet. Yet SPHERE has the ability to reach the highest contrast possible in a tiny patch of sky around the dazzling star.

"SPHERE is a very complex instrument," said Jean-Luc Beuzit, Principal Investigator of SPHERE, in a news release. "Thanks to the hard work of the many people who were involved in its design, construction and installation it was already exceeded our expectations."

In fact, SPHERE has already made some discoveries. During the first light observations, several test targets were observed using the many different modes of SPHERE. These included one of the best images so far of the ring of dust around the nearby star, HR 4796A. In fact, the image not only shows the ring with exceptional clarity, but also reveals how well SPHERE can suppress the glare of the bright star at the center of the picture.

Currently, SPHERE is still being tested. Yet it will soon be made available to the astronomical community in late 2014.

"This is just the beginning," said Beauzit in a news release. "SPHERE is a uniquely powerful tool and will doubtless reveal many exciting surprises in the years to come."

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