Intriguing thermal infrared images of dust and gas heated by invisible stars in a distant region of our Milky Way have appeared on a computer screen in the control room of the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT).
These images mark the successful first light of the VLT Imager and Spectrometer in the InfraRed (VISIR), the latest instrument to be installed on this powerful telescope facility at the ESO Paranal Observatory in Chile. The event was greeted with a mixture of delight, satisfaction and some relief by the team of astronomers and engineers from the consortium of French and Dutch Institutes and ESO who have worked on the development of VISIR for around 10 years.
Pierre-Olivier Lagage (CEA, France), the Principal Investigator, is content : "This is a wonderful day! A result of many years of dedication by a team of engineers and technicians, who can today be proud of their work. With VISIR, astronomers will have at their disposal a great instrument on a marvellous telescope. And the gain is enormous; 20 minutes of observing with VISIR is equivalent to a whole night of observing on a 3-4m class telescope."
Dutch astronomer and co-PI Jan-Willem Pel (Groningen, The Netherlands) adds: "What's more, VISIR features a unique observing mode in the mid-infrared: spectroscopy at a very high spectral resolution. This will open up new possibilities such as the study of warm molecular hydrogen most likely to be an important component of our galaxy."
The mid-infrared spectral region extends from a few to a few tens of microns in wavelength and provides a unique view of our Universe. Optical astronomy, that is astronomy at wavelengths to which our eyes are sensitive, is mostly directed towards light emitted by gas, be it in stars, nebulae or galaxies. Mid-Infrared astronomy, however, allows us to also detect solid dust particles at temperatures of -200 to +300 deg C.
Dust is very abundant in the universe in many different environments, ranging from cometary tails to the centers of galaxies. This dust also often totally absorbs and hence blocks the visible light reaching us from such objects. Red light, and especially infrared light, can propagate much better in dust clouds.
Many important astrophysical processes occur in regions of high obscuration by dust, most notably star formation and the late stages of their evolution, when stars that have burnt nearly all their fuel shed much of their outer layers and dust grains form in their "stellar wind". Stars are born in so-called molecular clouds. The proto-stars feed from these clouds and are shielded from the outside by them. Infrared is a tool - very much as ultrasound is for medical inspections - for looking into those otherwise hidden regions to study the stellar "embryos".
It is thus crucial to also observe the Universe in the infrared and mid-infrared. Unfortunately, there are also infrared-emitting molecules in the Earth's atmosphere, e.g. water vapor, Nitric Oxides, Ozone, Methane. Because of these gases, the atmosphere is completely opaque at certain wavelengths, except in a few "windows" where the Earth's atmosphere is transparent.
Even in these windows, however, the sky and telescope emit radiation in the infrared to an extent that observing in the mid-infrared at night is comparable to trying to do optical astronomy in daytime. Ground-based infrared astronomers have thus become extremely adept at developing special techniques called "chopping' and "nodding" for detecting the extremely faint astronomical signals against this unwanted bright background.
Observations from the ground at wavelengths of 10 to 20 micron are particularly difficult because this is the wavelength region in which both the telescope and the atmosphere emits most strongly. In order to minimize its effect, the images shown here were made by tilting the telescope secondary mirror every few seconds (chopping) and the whole telescope every minute (nodding) so that this unwanted telescope and sky background emission could be measured and subtracted from the science images faster than it varies.
VISIR - the VLT Imager and Spectrometer in the InfraRed - is a complex multi-mode instrument designed to operate in the 10 and 20 micron atmospheric windows, i.e. at wavelengths up to about 40 times longer than visible light and to provide images as well as spectra at a wide range of resolving power up to ~ 30.000. It can sample images down to the diffraction limit of the 8.2-m Melipal telescope (0.27 arcsec at 10 micron wavelength, i.e. corresponding to a resolution of 500 m on the Moon), which is expected to be reached routinely due to the excellent seeing conditions experienced for a large fraction of the time at the VLT.
Stellar radiation on its way to the observer is also affected by the turbulence of the Earth's atmosphere. This is the effect which makes the stars twinkle for the human eye. While the general public enjoys this phenomenon as something that makes the night sky interesting and may be entertaining, the twinkling is a major concern for amateur and professional astronomers, as it smears out the optical images. Infrared radiation is less affected by this effect. Therefore an instrument like VISIR can make full use of the extremely high optical quality of modern telescopes, like the VLT.
Because at room temperature the metal and glass of VISIR would emit strongly at exactly the same wavelengths and would swamp any faint mid-infrared astronomical signals, the whole VISIR instrument is cooled to a temperature close to -250 deg C and its two panoramic 256x256 pixel array detectors to even lower temperatures, only a few degrees above absolute zero. It is also kept in a vacuum tank to avoid the unavoidable condensation of water and icing which would otherwise occur.
The complete instrument is mounted on the telescope and must remain rigid to within a few thousandths of a millimeter as the telescope moves to acquire and then track objects anywhere in the sky. Needless to say, this makes for an extremely complex instrument and explains the many years needed to develop and bring it to the telescope on the top of Paranal. VISIR also includes a number of important technological innovations, most notably its unique cryogenic motor drive systems comprising integrated stepper motors, gears and clutches whose shape is similar to that of the box of the famous French Camembert cheese.
The fully integrated VISIR plus all the associated equipment (amounting to a total of around 8 tons) was air freighted from Paris to Santiago de Chile and arrived at the Paranal Observatory on 25th March after a subsequent 1500 km journey by road. Following tests to confirm that nothing had been damaged, VISIR was mounted on the third VLT telescope "Melipal" on April 27th. ESO PR Photos 16a/04 and 16b/04 show the approximately 1.6 tons of VISIR being mounted at the Cassegrain focus, below the 8.2-m main mirror.
First technical light on a star was achieved on April 29th, shortly after VISIR had been cooled down to its operating temperature. This allowed to proceed with the necessary first basic operations, including focusing the telescope, and tests. While telescope focusing was one of the difficult and frequent tasks faced by astronomers in the past, this is no longer so with the active optics feature of the VLT telescopes which, in principle, has to be focused only once after which it will forever be automatically kept in perfect focus.
The photos above resulted from some of the first observational tests with VISIR. PR Photo 16c/04 shows the scientific first light image, obtained one day later on April 30th, of a visually obscured star forming region nearly 10,000 light-years away in our galaxy, the Milky Way. The picture shown here is a false-color image made by combining three digital images of the intensity of the infrared emission from this region at wavelengths of 11.3 micron (one of the Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon - PAH - features), 12.8 micron (an emission line of ionized neon) and 19 micron (cool dust emission).
Until now, an elegant way to avoid the problems caused by the emission and absorption of the atmosphere was to fly infrared telescopes on satellites as was done in the highly successful IRAS and ISO missions and currently the Spitzer observatory.
For both technical and cost reasons, however, such telescopes have so far been limited to only 60-85 cm in diameter. While very sensitive therefore, the spatial resolution (sharpness) delivered by these telescopes is 10 times worse than that of the 8.2-m diameter VLT telescopes. They have also not been equipped with the very high spectral resolution capability, a feature of the VISIR instrument, which is thus expected to remain the instrument of choice for a wide range of studies for many years to come despite the competition from space.
The European Southern Observatory is an intergovernmental, European organization for astronomical research. It has ten member countries. ESO operates astronomical observatories in Chile and has its headquarters in Garching, near Munich, Germany.