A Belgian cookie shares its name with a sweet new telescope project. No surprise, then, that the instrument's first image is a treat for the eyes.
The delectably named SPECULOOS project has achieved first light, according to a statement released Wednesday (Dec. 5) by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
SPECULOOS is the abbreviation of Search for Habitable Planets Eclipsing Ultra-Cool Stars. Known collectively as SPECULOOS Southern Observatory (SSO), the project consists of four telescopes at ESO's Paranal Observatory in the arid, clear-sky region of northern Chile. SPECULOOS will watch for dips in brightness around ultracool stars, as these dips are signs that a planet may be passing in front of a star. It's something like the way the moon causes dimming when it occasionally eclipses the sun.
Speculoos cookies are spiced, short-crust biscuits from Belgium, which is where the project's lead investigator, Michaël Gillon, hails from. If the name rings a bell, that's likely because Gillon was the lead researcher in the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system, which is made up seven rocky planets, some Earth-size and potentially friendly to life.
Whether cookies or telescopes, both types of SPECULOOS provide amazing sensory experiences. Hauntingly beautiful wisps of cosmic dust and gas weave through the scene in SSO's first image. The Dec. 5 image features a stellar nursery known as the Carina Nebula.
This image was part of SSO's commissioning phase; real scientific operations begin in January 2019, according to the statement.
By staring at small, ultracool stars, SPECULOOS's highly sensitive instruments have a good shot at detecting Earth-size planets in stars' habitable zones, researchers said in the statement. Until now, only a few exoplanets detected by spotting them passing in front of a star, called the transit method, have been Earth-size or smaller. Only time will tell how SPECULOOS will affect habitable-world astronomy.