An astronomical camera's "first light" is kind of a big deal.
It's when a new imaging instrument "opens its eyes" and snaps its very first images of the sky. Astronomers hold their breath and cross their fingers, hoping every single mirror and lens is perfectly in place, and the images don't turn out fuzzy. Sometimes, things don't go so well, as in the early days of Hubble.
Other times, a camera gets it just right, and you end up with something that takes your breath away -- or scares the bejeezus out of you.
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SPHERE images the dust ring around the star HR 4796A.
This infrared image is one of the first produced by SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet Research instrument), an instrument that was installed by the European Space Observatory last month on its Very Large Telescope in Chile.
It shows HR 4796A, a young star engulfed in a dust ring. The star is located 220 light-years away in the southern constellation of Centaurus.
In the future, astronomers hope to use SPHERE's high-contrast imaging to find and study new exoplanets, whose faint signatures can be difficult to spot thanks to the intense glow of their nearby host stars.
“This is just the beginning," SPHERE's principal investigator, Jean-Luc Beuzit, said in a written statement released by the observatory. "SPHERE is a uniquely powerful tool and will doubtless reveal many exciting surprises in the years to come."
Bring it on.