Located in northern Chile in the Atacama Desert, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) recently celebrated its 60th anniversary. The crown jewel of the observatory is the Very Large Telescope (VLT), which includes four free-standing 8.2-m main and 1.8-m auxiliary telescopes. This is the most advanced optical telescope on Earth, with the highest optical resolution in the world. Now one of the four main telescopes has received a new instrument that has increased the resolution of the installation.
The former NACO instrument with the SINFONI spectrograph has been replaced by the ERIS (Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph) instrument. ERIS has a state-of-the-art infrared imaging device, the Near Infrared (NIX) Camera System. In addition, it contains the new SPIFFIER spectrograph (a modernized SPIFFI, SPectrometer for Infrared Faint Field Imaging).
“SPIFFIER collects the spectrum from every single pixel in the field of view. This will allow astronomers to study, for example, the dynamics of distant galaxies in incredible detail or measure the speeds of stars orbiting the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, which is key to testing general relativity and understanding the physics of black holes. .
The first scientific image (presented above) with the help of the new instrument was obtained during a survey of the galaxy NGC 1097. For comparison, the same object taken by the NACO instrument is shown next to it. The heart of the galaxy NGC 1097 in the constellation Fornax, which is 45 million light years away from us, looks like a ring with a bright object in the center.
At the center of NGC 1097 is a supermassive black hole, the infrared light from whose activity we see in the image. It absorbs matter from the surrounding accretion disk and shines in this region. Also in the picture we see bright spots – there, in clouds of dust and gas, new stars are born. Stars of the background universe are visible through the dust clouds in the center of the ring. The difference in sharpness between NACO and ERIS is striking.
Like NACO, the ERIS instrument has adaptive optics. The laser beams emitted by the instrument create reference “stars” high in the sky on the border with space, which allow real-time adjustment of the curvature of the secondary mirror in such a way as to compensate for air tremor along the entire path of light through the Earth’s atmosphere. Only in this way can optical telescopes located on Earth catch up with and even surpass the capabilities of space telescopes in some way.
With ERIS, the Very Large Telescope will help capture Earth’s unprecedented clarity of images of distant galaxies, exoplanets, and whatever else scientists desire. This instrument will be the flagship of terrestrial astronomy for about ten years, after which it may give way to an Extremely Large Telescope with a mirror of about 40 m, which is being built near the VLT.
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