Scientists capture 'terrifying' Tolkien-like eclipse (w/ Video)

Apr 07, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Scientists have captured a 'terrifying' image of a giant Goliath-like star undergoing a two year eclipse. First discovered by a German astronomer 180 years ago, it is the first close-up image of an eclipse beyond the solar system to be captured on camera by scientists.

Astronomers at the University of St Andrews, who collaborated in the international study, describe the find as a ‘terrifying image... like something from a Tolkien book’.

St Andrews physicists Ettore Pedretti and Nathalie Thureau are members of an international team led by Brian Kloppenborg at the University of Denver. The group combined the light of four telescopes more than 300 metres apart to capture a magnified image of the undergoing a ‘stellar eclipse’.

The star, Epsilon Aurigae, is the fifth brightest star in the constellation Auriga, which is known as ‘the charioteer’. Every 27 years Epsilon Aurigae becomes two to three times dimmer, with the dimmed light lasting about two years. The phenomenon was first observed in 1821 by the German astronomer Johann Fritsch.

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Using an instrument created at the University of Michigan, astronomers have for the first time imaged a peculiar binary star eclipse that happens once every 27 years.

The resulting image, roughly 140 times sharper than those provided by the , provides new insights into the distant , even though the effect of the eclipse is so big that the star almost disappears from view.

Dr Pedretti said, "From the image, we can confirm that the eclipse of Epsilon Aurigae is caused by a thin disc of opaque dust trailed by a massive and unseen companion. Like David, tiny particles of dust are able to kill the light of this ‘Goliath’ star.

“It resembles an image from a book by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is like seeing the vessel of the sun, guided by the Maya Arien, being swallowed by the dragon Smaug and plunging Middle Earth in a second-age of darkness. It is a terrifying image".

The innovative light-combining technique used to view the star is called optical interferometry. Dr Pedretti built the used to take superfast ‘snapshots' of the combined light of four telescopes. It has to be very fast in order to 'freeze' the image against the turbulent atmosphere.

Dr Thureau was responsible for the design of some critical optics that combine the light from the four telescopes. She commented, "With this image we have solved an 180 year old mystery. Astronomers have been puzzled for more than a century about this star and we took two pictures that may finally solve the mystery. In fact we will continue to capture images since the lasts about two years.”

Dr Pedretti and Dr Thureau aim to form the first group in Scotland which will build instruments for optical and infrared interferometry, exploting their high-resolution images.

"Our aim is to exploit existing interferometers around the world in order to take detailed pictures of distant and interesting astronomical objects that are not achievable even with the largest single telescopes," explained Dr Pedretti.

The research, which involved the Universities of St Andrews, Denver, Georgia State and Michigan, is published in this week's issue of Nature.

Explore further: POLARBEAR detects curls in the universe's oldest light

More information: The paper is called "Infrared images of the transiting disk in the epsilon Aurigae System."

Provided by University of St Andrews

4.3 /5 (22 votes)

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mklnk
5 / 5 (11) Apr 07, 2010
The Tolkien reference was complete nonsense, even for a Tolkien fan. The idea that Smaug, a living mortal character of the third age would or even could devour the sun, guided by Arien, a mythological character of the first age, is ridiculous. It's like placing Jesus and Saddam Hussein in the same analogy, or Superman and the kid from Wanted.

But then, I guess that's not really the point and I seem like a massive nerd for being so bothered by it.
Ronan
not rated yet Apr 07, 2010
Ungoliant might've been a better candidate for "sun-devourer," considering her power and hunger. But...'myes.

Nerdy references aside, that is interesting. I wonder what specifically is going on in that system? From the description, it sounds sort of like a planet that's not-quite-completely condensed, and is still being preceded and trailed by its dust cloud--or more impressively, perhaps its a planet that had an extremely violent run-in with a neighbor, and had dusty chunks of itself scattered every which way? It'd be interesting to see if there's any difference in the degree of dimming between different eclipses.

(Edit:) Ah, a binary star system. Nevermind, then; hadn't seen this article (http://www.physor...52.html) when I posted the above.
spacester
5 / 5 (2) Apr 07, 2010
@mklnk
If you hadn't said it, others would have had to. :-)
Truth
not rated yet Apr 07, 2010
You're right, folks, this Tolkien reference is nothing more than one science writer's attempt at giving science a Hollywood-like glamor. Which is really sad because science, especially this particular astronomical phenomena, can easily stand on its own merit as a wonderful and awe inspiring event. In other words, science doesn't need silly children's book adornements to be absolutely amazing.
Omen
not rated yet Apr 07, 2010
Are there size limits on optical interferometry?

Could you for example, string together line of satellites across the solar system and use it like a giant telescope?
scidog
5 / 5 (1) Apr 07, 2010
it's a press release,for real science read the paper.
i'm one of those people who thinks that anything that will get people to even glance at science news is worth it.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Apr 08, 2010
See the Very Long Baseline Array, not optical. Or the optical Large Binocular Telescope.
Rynox77
Apr 08, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
mklnk
not rated yet Apr 08, 2010
The thing is, there are two articles on this on the front page right now. One contains the words "terrifying" and "Tolkien-like" while the other doesn't. The other one grabbed my attention first and I didn't read this one until hours later.
PinkElephant
not rated yet Apr 08, 2010
science doesn't need silly children's book adornements to be absolutely amazing.
On behalf of all Tolkien fans, I resent that. Inasmuch as Tolkien synthesized and/or evolved his legendarium from pre-existing European myths and folklore, not to mention being heavily filtered through Biblical allegories, you just called a whole lot of human tradition silly and childish. I think Tolkien's creation richly deserves the designation of High Fantasy, as opposed to mere fairy tales.

That said, I do agree the allusion here was both vapid and inane.
Husky
not rated yet Apr 10, 2010
while spectacular and significant in its own right, the suspense laden title cannot deliver on the anticipated imminent doom