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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.

Stellar binary R Aquarii imaged by VLT-SPHERE/ZIMPOL. (Image ESO/Schmid et al.)

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.

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