An international team of astronomers today announced the discovery of a rare molecule — phosphine — in the clouds of Venus. On Earth, this gas is only made industrially or by microbes that thrive in oxygen-free environments. Astronomers have speculated for decades that high clouds on Venus could offer a home for microbes — floating free of the scorching surface but needing to tolerate very high acidity. The detection of phosphine could point to such extra-terrestrial “aerial” life. Confirming the presence of life, however, will require much more work.
“When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’s spectrum, it was a shock!”, says team leader Jane Greaves of Cardiff University in the UK, who first spotted signs of phosphine in observations from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT), operated by the East Asian Observatory, in Hawaiʻi. Confirming their discovery required using 45 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, a more sensitive telescope in which the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is a partner. Both facilities observed Venus at a wavelength of about 1 millimeter, much longer than the human eye can see — only telescopes at high altitude can detect it effectively.
The international team, which includes researchers from the UK, US and Japan, estimates that phosphine exists in Venus’s clouds at a small concentration, only about twenty molecules in every billion. Following their observations, they ran calculations to see whether these amounts could come from natural non-biological processes on the planet. Some ideas included sunlight, minerals blown upwards from the surface, volcanoes, or lightning, but none of these could make anywhere near enough of it. These non-biological sources were found to make at most one ten thousandth of the amount of phosphine that the telescopes saw.
To create the observed quantity of phosphine (which consists of hydrogen and phosphorus) on Venus, terrestrial organisms would only need to work at about 10% of their maximum productivity, according to the team. Earth bacteria are known to make phosphine: they take up phosphate from minerals or biological material, add hydrogen, and ultimately expel phosphine. Any organisms on Venus will probably be very different to their Earth cousins, but they too could be the source of phosphine in the atmosphere.
While the discovery of phosphine in Venus’s clouds came as a surprise, the researchers are confident in their detection. “To our great relief, the conditions were good at ALMA for follow-up observations while Venus was at a suitable angle to Earth. Processing the data was tricky, though, as ALMA isn’t usually looking for very subtle effects in very bright objects like Venus,” says team member Anita Richards of the UK ALMA Regional Centre and the University of Manchester. “In the end, we found that both observatories had seen the same thing — faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below,” adds Greaves, who led the study published today in Nature Astronomy.
Another team member, Clara Sousa Silva of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, has investigated phosphine as a “biosignature” gas of non-oxygen-using life on planets around other stars, because normal chemistry makes so little of it. She comments: “Finding phosphine on Venus was an unexpected bonus! The discovery raises many questions, such as how any organisms could survive. On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5% of acid in their environment — but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid.”
The team believes their discovery is significant because they can rule out many alternative ways to make phosphine, but they acknowledge that confirming the presence of “life” needs a lot more work. Although the high clouds of Venus have temperatures up to a pleasant 30 degrees Celsius, they are incredibly acidic — around 90% sulfuric acid — posing major issues for any microbes trying to survive there.
ESO astronomer and ALMA European Operations Manager Leonardo Testi, who did not participate in the new study, says: “The non-biological production of phosphine on Venus is excluded by our current understanding of phosphine chemistry in rocky planets’ atmospheres. Confirming the existence of life on Venus’s atmosphere would be a major breakthrough for astrobiology; thus, it is essential to follow-up on this exciting result with theoretical and observational studies to exclude the possibility that phosphine on rocky planets may also have a chemical origin different than on Earth.”
More observations of Venus and of rocky planets outside our Solar System, including with ESO’s forthcoming Extremely Large Telescope, may help gather clues on how phosphine can originate on them and contribute to the search for signs of life beyond Earth.
Resembling a butterfly with its symmetrical structure, beautiful colors, and intricate patterns, this striking bubble of gas — known as NGC 2899 — appears to float and flutter across the sky in this new picture from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). This object has never before been imaged in such striking detail, with even the faint outer edges of the planetary nebula glowing over the background stars.
NGC 2899’s vast swathes of gas extend up to a maximum of two light-years from its center, glowing brightly in front of the stars of the Milky Way as the gas reaches temperatures upwards of ten thousand degrees. The high temperatures are due to the large amount of radiation from the nebula’s parent star, which causes the hydrogen gas in the nebula to glow in a reddish halo around the oxygen gas, in blue.
This object, located between 3000 and 6500 light-years away in the Southern constellation of Vela (The Sails), has two central stars, which are believed to give it its nearly symmetric appearance. After one star reached the end of its life and cast off its outer layers, the other star now interferes with the flow of gas, forming the two-lobed shape seen here. Only about 10–20% of planetary nebulae  display this type of bipolar shape.
Astronomers were able to capture this highly detailed image of NGC 2899 using the FORS instrument installed on UT1 (Antu), one of the four 8.2-meter telescopes that make up ESO’s VLT in Chile. Standing for FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph, this high-resolution instrument was one of the first to be installed on ESO’s VLT and is behind numerous beautiful images and discoveries from ESO. FORS has contributed to observations of light from a gravitational wave source, has researched the first known interstellar asteroid, and has been used to study in depth the physics behind the formation of complex planetary nebulae.
This image was created under the ESO Cosmic Gems program, an outreach initiative to produce images of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes, for the purposes of education and public outreach. The program makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for science observations. All data collected may also be suitable for scientific purposes, and are made available to astronomers through ESO’s science archive.
May 20 — “Thousands of exoplanets have been identified so far, but little is known about how they form,” says Anthony Boccaletti who led the study from the Observatoire de Paris, PSL University, France. Astronomers know planets are born in dusty discs surrounding young stars, like AB Aurigae, as cold gas and dust clump together. The new observations with ESO’s VLT, published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, provide crucial clues to help scientists better understand this process.
“We need to observe very young systems to really capture the moment when planets form,” says Boccaletti. But until now astronomers had been unable to take sufficiently sharp and deep images of these young discs to find the ‘twist’ that marks the spot where a baby planet may be coming to existence.
The new images feature a stunning spiral of dust and gas around AB Aurigae, located 520 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Auriga (The Charioteer). Spirals of this type signal the presence of baby planets, which ‘kick’ the gas, creating “disturbances in the disc in the form of a wave, somewhat like the wake of a boat on a lake,” explains Emmanuel Di Folco of the Astrophysics Laboratory of Bordeaux (LAB), France, who also participated in the study. As the planet rotates around the central star, this wave gets shaped into a spiral arm. The very bright yellow ‘twist’ region close to the center of the new AB Aurigae image, which lies at about the same distance from the star as Neptune from the Sun, is one of these disturbance sites where the team believe a planet is being made.
Observations of the AB Aurigae system made a few years ago with the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), in which ESO is a partner, provided the first hints of ongoing planet formation around the star. In the ALMA images, scientists spotted two spiral arms of gas close to the star, lying within the disc’s inner region. Then, in 2019 and early 2020, Boccaletti and a team of astronomers from France, Taiwan, the US and Belgium set out to capture a clearer picture by turning the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s VLT in Chile toward the star. The SPHERE images are the deepest images of the AB Aurigae system obtained to date.
With SPHERE’s powerful imaging system, astronomers could see the fainter light from small dust grains and emissions coming from the inner disc. They confirmed the presence of the spiral arms first detected by ALMA and also spotted another remarkable feature, a ‘twist’, that points to the presence of ongoing planet formation in the disc. “The twist is expected from some theoretical models of planet formation,” says co-author Anne Dutrey, also at LAB. “It corresponds to the connection of two spirals — one winding inwards of the planet’s orbit, the other expanding outwards — which join at the planet location. They allow gas and dust from the disc to accrete onto the forming planet and make it grow.”
ESO is constructing the 39-meter Extremely Large Telescope, which will draw on the cutting-edge work of ALMA and SPHERE to study extrasolar worlds. As Boccaletti explains, this powerful telescope will allow astronomers to get even more detailed views of planets in the making. “We should be able to see directly and more precisely how the dynamics of the gas contributes to the formation of planets,” he concludes.
Astronomers using ESO’s SPHERE instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) have revealed that the asteroid Hygiea could be classified as a dwarf planet. The object is the fourth largest in the asteroid belt after Ceres, Vesta and Pallas. For the first time, astronomers have observed Hygiea in sufficiently high resolution to study its surface and determine its shape and size. They found that Hygiea is spherical, potentially taking the crown from Ceres as the smallest dwarf planet in the Solar System.
As an object in the main asteroid belt, Hygiea satisfies right away three of the four requirements to be classified as a dwarf planet: it orbits around the Sun, it is not a moon and, unlike a planet, it has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. The final requirement is that it has enough mass for its own gravity to pull it into a roughly spherical shape. This is what VLT observations have now revealed about Hygiea.
“Thanks to the unique capability of the SPHERE instrument on the VLT, which is one of the most powerful imaging systems in the world, we could resolve Hygiea’s shape, which turns out to be nearly spherical,” says lead researcher Pierre Vernazza from the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille in France. “Thanks to these images, Hygiea may be reclassified as a dwarf planet, so far the smallest in the Solar System.”
The team also used the SPHERE observations to constrain Hygiea’s size, putting its diameter at just over 430 km. Pluto, the most famous of dwarf planets, has a diameter close to 2,400 km, while Ceres is close to 950 km in size.
Surprisingly, the observations also revealed that Hygiea lacks the very large impact crater that scientists expected to see on its surface, the team report in the study published today in Nature Astronomy. Hygiea is the main member of one of the largest asteroid families, with close to 7,000 members that all originated from the same parent body. Astronomers expected the event that led to the formation of this numerous family to have left a large, deep mark on Hygiea.
“This result came as a real surprise as we were expecting the presence of a large impact basin, as is the case on Vesta,” says Vernazza. Although the astronomers observed Hygiea’s surface with a 95 percent coverage, they could only identify two unambiguous craters. “Neither of these two craters could have been caused by the impact that originated the Hygiea family of asteroids whose volume is comparable to that of a 100 km-sized object. They are too small,” explains study co-author Miroslav Brož of the Astronomical Institute of Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.
The team decided to investigate further. Using numerical simulations, they deduced that Hygiea’s spherical shape and large family of asteroids are likely the result of a major head-on collision with a large projectile of diameter between 75 and 150 km. Their simulations show this violent impact, thought to have occurred about 2 billion years ago, completely shattered the parent body. Once the left-over pieces reassembled, they gave Hygiea its round shape and thousands of companion asteroids. “Such a collision between two large bodies in the asteroid belt is unique in the last 3–4 billion years,” says Pavel Ševeček, a PhD student at the Astronomical Institute of Charles University who also participated in the study.
Studying asteroids in detail has been possible thanks not only to advances in numerical computation, but also to more powerful telescopes. “Thanks to the VLT and the new generation adaptive-optics instrument SPHERE, we are now imaging main belt asteroids with unprecedented resolution, closing the gap between Earth-based and interplanetary mission observations,” Vernazza concludes.
An evanescent shell of glowing gas spreading into space — the planetary nebula ESO 577-24 — dominates this image. This planetary nebula is the remains of a dead giant star that has thrown off its outer layers, leaving behind a small, intensely hot dwarf star. This diminished remnant will gradually cool and fade, living out its days as the mere ghost of a once-vast red giant star.
Red giants are stars at the end of their lives that have exhausted the hydrogen fuel in their cores and begun to contract under the crushing grip of gravity. As a red giant shrinks, the immense pressure reignites the core of the star, causing it to throw its outer layers into the void as a powerful stellar wind. The dying star’s incandescent core emits ultraviolet radiation intense enough to ionize these ejected layers and cause them to shine. The result is what we see as a planetary nebula — a final, fleeting testament to an ancient star at the end of its life.
This dazzling planetary nebula was discovered as part of the National Geographic Society — Palomar Observatory Sky Survey in the 1950s, and was recorded in the Abell Catalogue of Planetary Nebulae in 1966. At around 1400 light years from Earth, the ghostly glow of ESO 577-24 is only visible through a powerful telescope. As the dwarf star cools, the nebula will continue to expand into space, slowly fading from view.
This image of ESO 577-24 was created as part of the ESO Cosmic Gems Programme, an initiative that produces images of interesting, intriguing, or visually attractive objects using ESO telescopes for the purposes of education and public outreach. The program makes use of telescope time that cannot be used for scientific observations; nevertheless, the data collected are made available to astronomers through the ESO Science Archive.
Astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time directly observed granulation patterns on the surface of a star outside the Solar System — the ageing red giant π1 Gruis. This remarkable new image from the PIONIER instrument reveals the convective cells that make up the surface of this huge star, which has 700 times the diameter of the Sun. Each cell covers more than a quarter of the star’s diameter and measures about 120 million kilometers across. These new results are being published this week in the journal Nature.
Located 530 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Grus (The Crane), π1 Gruis is a cool red giant. It has about the same mass as our Sun, but is 700 times larger and several thousand times as bright. Our Sun will swell to become a similar red giant star in about five billion years.
An international team of astronomers led by Claudia Paladini (ESO) used the PIONIER instrument on European Southern Observatory’s (ESO’s) Very Large Telescope to observe π1 Gruis in greater detail than ever before. They found that the surface of this red giant has just a few convective cells, or granules, that are each about 120 million kilometers across — about a quarter of the star’s diameter. Just one of these granules would extend from the Sun to beyond Venus. The surfaces — known as photospheres — of many giant stars are obscured by dust, which hinders observations. However, in the case of π1 Gruis, although dust is present far from the star, it does not have a significant effect on the new infrared observations.
When π1 Gruis ran out of hydrogen to burn long ago, this ancient star ceased the first stage of its nuclear fusion program. It shrank as it ran out of energy, causing it to heat up to over 100 million degrees. These extreme temperatures fueled the star’s next phase as it began to fuse helium into heavier atoms such as carbon and oxygen. This intensely hot core then expelled the star’s outer layers, causing it to balloon to hundreds of times larger than its original size. The star we see today is a variable red giant. Until now, the surface of one of these stars has never before been imaged in detail.
By comparison, the Sun’s photosphere contains about two million convective cells, with typical diameters of just 1,500 kilometers. The vast size differences in the convective cells of these two stars can be explained in part by their varying surface gravities. π1 Gruis is just 1.5 times the mass of our Sun but much larger, resulting in a much lower surface gravity and just a few, extremely large, granules.
While stars more massive than eight solar masses end their lives in dramatic supernovae explosions, less massive stars like this one gradually expel their outer layers, resulting in beautiful planetary nebulae. Previous studies of π1 Gruis found a shell of material 0.9 light-years away from the central star, thought to have been ejected around 20,000 years ago. This relatively short period in a star’s life lasts just a few tens of thousands of years – compared to the overall lifetime of several billion – and these observations reveal a new method for probing this fleeting red giant phase.
On 17 August 2017 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and the Virgo Interferometer both alerted astronomical observers all over the globe about the detection of a gravitational wave event named GW170817. About two seconds after the detection of the gravitational wave, ESA’s INTEGRAL telescope and NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope observed a short gamma-ray burst in the same direction.
In the night following the initial discovery, a fleet of telescopes started their hunt to locate the source of the event. Astronomers found it in the lenticular galaxy NGC 4993, about 130 million light-years away. A point of light was shining where nothing was visible before and this set off one of the largest multi-telescope observing campaigns ever — among these telescopes was the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope
Several different teams of scientists used Hubble over the two weeks following the gravitational wave event alert to observe NGC 4993. Using Hubble’s high-resolution imaging capabilities they managed to get the first observational proof for a kilonova, the visible counterpart of the merging of two extremely dense objects — most likely two neutron stars. Such mergers were first suggested more than 30 years ago but this marks the first firm observation of such an event. The distance to the merger makes the source both the closest gravitational wave event detected so far and also one of the closest gamma-ray burst sources ever seen.
“Once I saw that there had been a trigger from LIGO and Virgo at the same time as a gamma-ray burst I was blown away,” recalls Andrew Levan of the University of Warwick, who led the Hubble team that obtained the first observations. “When I realised that it looked like neutron stars were involved, I was even more amazed. We’ve been waiting a long time for an opportunity like this!”
Hubble captured images of the galaxy in visible and infrared light, witnessing a new bright object within NGC 4993 that was brighter than a nova but fainter than a supernova. The images showed that the object faded noticeably over the six days of the Hubble observations. Using Hubble’s spectroscopic capabilities the teams also found indications of material being ejected by the kilonova as fast as one-fifth of the speed of light.
“It was surprising just how closely the behaviour of the kilonova matched the predictions,” said Nial Tanvir, professor at the University of Leicester and leader of another Hubble observing team. “It looked nothing like known supernovae, which this object could have been, and so confidence was soon very high that this was the real deal.”
Connecting kilonovae and short gamma-ray bursts to neutron star mergers has so far been difficult, but the multitude of detailed observations following the detection of the gravitational wave event GW170817 has now finally verified these connections.
“The spectrum of the kilonova looked exactly like how theoretical physicists had predicted the outcome of the merger of two neutron stars would appear,” says Levan. “It ties this object to the gravitational wave source beyond all reasonable doubt.”
The infrared spectra taken with Hubble also showed several broad bumps and wiggles that signal the formation of some of the heaviest elements in nature. These observations may help solve another long-standing question in astronomy: the origin of heavy chemical elements, like gold and platinum. In the merger of two neutron stars, the conditions appear just right for their production.
The implications of these observations are immense. As Tanvir explains: “This discovery has opened up a new approach to astronomical research, where we combine information from both electromagnetic light and from gravitational waves. We call this multi-messenger astronomy — but until now it has just been a dream!”
Levan concludes: “Now, astronomers won’t just look at the light from an object, as we’ve done for hundreds of years, but also listen to it. Gravitational waves provide us with complementary information from objects which are very hard to study using only electromagnetic waves. So pairing gravitational waves with electromagnetic radiation will help astronomers understand some of the most extreme events in the Universe.”
Astronomers have found a system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away. Using ground and space telescopes, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the planets were all detected as they passed in front of their parent star, the ultracool dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1. According to the paper appearing today in the journal Nature, three of the planets lie in the habitable zone and could harbor oceans of water on their surfaces, increasing the possibility that the star system could play host to life. This system has both the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of worlds that could support liquid water on their surfaces.
Astronomers using the TRAPPIST–South telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal and the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope, as well as other telescopes around the world, have now confirmed the existence of at least seven small planets orbiting the cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1. All the planets, labelled TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g and h in order of increasing distance from their parent star, have sizes similar to Earth.
Dips in the star’s light output caused by each of the seven planets passing in front of it — events known as transits — allowed the astronomers to infer information about their sizes, compositions and orbits. They found that at least the inner six planets are comparable in both size and temperature to the Earth.
Lead author Michaël Gillon of the STAR Institute at the University of Liège in Belgium is delighted by the findings: “This is an amazing planetary system — not only because we have found so many planets, but because they are all surprisingly similar in size to the Earth!”
With just eight percent the mass of the Sun, TRAPPIST-1 is very small in stellar terms — only marginally bigger than the planet Jupiter — and though nearby in the constellation Aquarius (The Water Carrier), it appears very dim. Astronomers expected that such dwarf stars might host many Earth-sized planets in tight orbits, making them promising targets in the hunt for extraterrestrial life, but TRAPPIST-1 is the first such system to be found.
Co-author Amaury Triaud expands: “The energy output from dwarf stars like TRAPPIST-1 is much weaker than that of our Sun. Planets would need to be in far closer orbits than we see in the Solar System if there is to be surface water. Fortunately, it seems that this kind of compact configuration is just what we see around TRAPPIST-1!”
The team determined that all the planets in the system are similar in size to Earth and Venus in the Solar System, or slightly smaller. The density measurements suggest that at least the innermost six are probably rocky in composition.
The planetary orbits are not much larger than that of Jupiter’s Galilean moon system, and much smaller than the orbit of Mercury in the Solar System. However, TRAPPIST-1’s small size and low temperature mean that the energy input to its planets is similar to that received by the inner planets in our Solar System; TRAPPIST-1c, d and f receive similar amounts of energy to Venus, Earth and Mars, respectively.
All seven planets discovered in the system could potentially have liquid water on their surfaces, though their orbital distances make some of them more likely candidates than others. Climate models suggest the innermost planets, TRAPPIST-1b, c and d, are probably too hot to support liquid water, except maybe on a small fraction of their surfaces. The orbital distance of the system’s outermost planet, TRAPPIST-1h, is unconfirmed, though it is likely to be too distant and cold to harbor liquid water — assuming no alternative heating processes are occurring. TRAPPIST-1e, f, and g, however, represent the holy grail for planet-hunting astronomers, as they orbit in the star’s habitable zone and could host oceans of surface water.
These new discoveries make the TRAPPIST-1 system a very important target for future study. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope is already being used to search for atmospheres around the planets and team member Emmanuël Jehin is excited about the future possibilities: “With the upcoming generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope and the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, we will soon be able to search for water and perhaps even evidence of life on these worlds.”
Well we give up! The skies and the calendar just are not coming into alignment for a December Open Night! Clouds and inclement weather (of various temperatures) are making stargazing impossible and have been plaguing us quite often this season. And there’s no way we would schedule a public event for Christmas Eve!
So we’ll say thanks for your interest and hope more clear skies come our way next year.
Normally at this point we bundle up the telescope for the winter and schedule nothing until March. If, however, the weather presents us with sufficient notice of good observing chances we may just present a “pop-up” Open Night before spring. We would love to show off the Orion Nebula through the old scope! Watch our Twitter feed and/or check back here after the holidays for any surprises.
At any rate, we hope you will have a safe and warm winter and a wonderful new year. For those who observe it, happy Christmas to you!
And for everyone, here is a beautiful image of the Christmas Tree star cluster, provided by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) to help make the season bright. Enjoy!