Dancing with the Enemy
While testing their new subsystem on the SPHERE planet-hunting instrument, a team lead by Hans Martin Schmid, professor of ETH Zürich and member of PlanetS, was able to capture the sharpest image ever of the binary star R Aquarii.
Installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chile, SPHERE and its component ZIMPOL were developed to focus on the search for exoplanets. ZIMPOL is the acronym for “Zurich Imaging POLarimeter” – a subsystem developed at ETH Zurich. SPHERE/ZIMPOL can achieve the challenging feat of directly imaging exoplanets. However, its capabilities are not limited to hunting for exoplanets. The instrument can also be used to study a variety of astronomical sources — as can be seen from this spellbinding image of the many stellar peculiarities exhibited by the binary star R Aquarii.
R Aquarii lies only 650 light-years from Earth — a near neighbour in astronomical terms — and is one of the closest symbiotic binary stars to Earth. Though most binary stars are bound in a graceful waltz by gravity, the relationship between the stars of R Aquarii is far less serene. Despite its diminutive size, the smaller of the two stars in this pair is steadily stripping material from its dying companion — a red giant. This intriguing binary has received particular attention from astronomers for decades. Capturing an image of the myriad features of R Aquarii was a perfect way for Hans Martin Schmid and his colleagues to test the capabilities of ZIMPOL. The results exceeded observations from space — the image shown here is even sharper than observations from the famous NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.
Press release: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1840/