SPHERE -- the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument -- has been installed on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and has achieved first light.
This powerful new facility for finding and studying exoplanets uses multiple advanced techniques in combination. It offers dramatically better performance than existing instruments and has produced impressive views of dust discs around nearby stars and other targets during the very first days of observations. SPHERE was developed and built by a consortium of many European institutes, led by the Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble, France, working in partnership with ESO. It is expected to revolutionise the detailed study of exoplanets and circumstellar discs.
SPHERE passed its acceptance tests in Europe in December 2013 and was then shipped to Paranal. The delicate reassembly was completed in May 2014 and the instrument is now mounted on VLT Unit Telescope 3. SPHERE is the latest of the second generation of instruments for the VLT (the first three were X-shooter, KMOS and MUSE).
SPHERE combines several advanced techniques to give the highest contrast ever reached for direct planetary imaging -- far beyond what could be achieved with NACO, which took the first ever direct image of an exoplanet. To reach its impressive performance SPHERE required early development of novel technologies, in particular in the area of adaptive optics, special detectors and coronagraph components.
"SPHERE is a very complex instrument. Thanks to the hard work of the many people who were involved in its design, construction and installation it has already exceeded our expectations. Wonderful!" says Jean-Luc Beuzit, of the Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble, France and Principal Investigator of SPHERE.
SPHERE's main goal is to find and characterise giant exoplanets orbiting nearby stars by direct imaging . This is an extremely challenging task as such planets are both very close to their parent stars in the sky and also very much fainter. In a normal image, even in the best conditions, the light from the star totally swamps the weak glow from the planet. The whole design of SPHERE is therefore focused on reaching the highest contrast possible in a tiny patch of sky around the dazzling star.
The first of three novel techniques exploited by SPHERE is extreme adaptive optics to correct for the effects of the Earth's atmosphere so that images are sharper and the contrast of the exoplanet increased. Secondly, a coronagraph is used to block out the light from the star and increase the contrast still further. Finally, a technique called differential imaging is applied that exploits differences between planetary and stellar light in terms of its colour or polarisation -- and these subtle differences can also be exploited to reveal a currently invisible exoplanet (ann13069, eso0503) .
SPHERE was designed and built by the following institutes: Institut de Planetologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble; Max-Planck-Institut fuer Astronomie in Heidelberg; Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Marseille; Laboratoire d'Etudes Spatiales et d'Instrumentation en Astrophysique de l'Observatoire de Paris; Laboratoire Lagrange in Nice; ONERA; Observatoire de Geneve; Italian National Institute for Astrophysics coordinated by the Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova; Institute for Astronomy, ETH Zurich; Astronomical Institute of the University of Amsterdam; Netherlands Research School for Astronomy (NOVA-ASTRON) and ESO.
During the first light observations several test targets were observed using the many different modes of SPHERE. These include one of the best images so far of the ring of dust around the nearby star HR 4796A. It not only shows the ring with exceptional clarity but also illustrates how well SPHERE can suppress the glare of the bright star at the centre of the picture.
Following further extensive tests and science verification observations SPHERE will be made available to the astronomical community later in 2014.
"This is just the beginning. SPHERE is a uniquely powerful tool and will doubtless reveal many exciting surprises in the years to come," concludes Jean-Luc Beuzit. Notes
 Most of the exoplanets currently known were discovered using indirect techniques -- such as radial velocity variations of the host star, or the dip in brightness of the star caused by a transiting exoplanet. Only a few exoplanets have so far been directly imaged (eso0515, eso0842).
 A further, but simpler trick employed by SPHERE is to take many pictures of an object, but with a significant rotation of the image in between each. Features in the pictures that rotate are artefacts of the imaging process, and features that stay in the same place are real objects in the sky. More information
ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world's largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".