Dusty old star offers window to our future, astronomers report

Astronomers have glimpsed dusty debris around an essentially dead star where gravity and radiation should have long ago removed any sign of dust. The discovery might provide insights into our own Solar System's eventual demise several billion years from now.

The results are based on observations using Michelle, a mid infrared instrument, on the 8-metre Gemini North Telescope on Hawaii. The observations reveal a surprisingly high abundance of dust orbiting an ancient stellar ember named GD 362.

Dr Alistair Glasse from the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh, where Michelle was designed and built, comments,

"The fact that astronomers were able to observe such faint remnants of a planetary system is testament to the tremendous sensitivity of Michelle. Michelle allows us to observe phenomena that could previously only be detected by spacecraft in orbit, but with a ten-fold improvement in the level of spatial detail. Michelle is undoubtedly proving to be a powerful tool in increasing our understanding of planetary systems."

For the full release plus images illustrating the discovery and audio of one of the scientists involved see the Gemini website.

Michelle, is a mid infrared spectrometer and imager. It was commissioned on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Hawaii in summer 2001 before being moved to Gemini North in early 2003. Michelle provides new capabilities in the relatively unexplored mid-infrared spectral region.


Contacts

Gill Ormrod - PPARC Press Office
Tel: 01793 442012. Mobile: 0781 8013509
Email: gill.ormrod@pparc.ac.uk

Eleanor Gilchrist - ROE Press Office
Tel: 0131 6688397
Email: efg@roe.ac.uk

Dr Alistair Glasse - UK Astronomy Technology Centre
Telephone: 0131 668 8396.
Email: achg@roe.ac.uk

Peter Michaud - Gemini Press Office
Tel: 00 1 808 974 2510. Mobile: 00 1 937 0845
Email: pmichaud@gemini.edu


Notes

The Gemini Observatory provides the astronomical communities in each partner country with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country's contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources. The national research agencies that form the Gemini partnership include: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and the Brazilian Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq). The Observatory is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. The NSF also serves as the executive agency for the international partnership.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK’s strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four broad areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.

PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.