A robotic all-sky monitor to observe one star for one year

For a period spanning 200 days from April 2017 extending up to January 2018 astronomers will observe beta Pictoris, the second brightest star in the constellation Pictor to detect rings from the planet beta Pictoris b. Beta Pictoris is a star located 63.4 light years from our Solar System with luminosity that is equal to that of the Sun. What is curious about beta Pictoris is, in 1981 its brightness diminished making astronomers think there must have been a huge object passing in front of the star, then the giant planet Pictoris b, was discovered in 2008.

In anticipation, a small robotic all sky monitor with two camera systems, the beta Pictoris b Ring project – bRing for short, will be dedicated to looking at beta Pictoris at the SA Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland, Northern Cape. The first light image of bRing proves that the instrument is ready for observations.

This year, the planet will move again in front of the star and pass almost directly between the star and us. If the planet has a ring system, we may be able to see the shadows of giant rings surrounding the planet, if and when they move into our line of sight.

The images taken by the cameras will be analysed on a set of computers inside bRing and will monitor any changes in the brightness of beta Pictoris. If a change in brightness is detected, this will allow the triggering of a host of observations using larger telescopes and more advanced instrumentation to study the details of the suspected ring system in-depth. Blaine Lomberg, UCT and SAAO PhD student, will trigger observations with the High Resolution Spectrograph on the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) to see if a transit of the ring system is detected to determine the composition of the rings

Dr. Steve Crawford who is among the team who worked on the installation of bRing in Sutherland says, “In addition to monitoring beta Pictoris, bRing will also provide regular monitoring of the southern sky and the conditions of the night sky at the Sutherland observatory. These data will be available to astronomers in South Africa allowing them to search for new phenomena and also monitoring the performance of their own observations.”

The bRing project, is funded by NOVA and Leiden University, enabled by a collaboration grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and National Research Foundation (NRF), the two funding institutions of South Africa and the Netherlands. Later in the year the second station will be installed in Australia led by astronomers from Rochester University.

The design, construction, installation and operation of bRing has been made possible by funding from NWO and NRF. South African astronomers will host the bRing instrument that was built by Leiden astronomers Matthew Kenworthy, Remko Stuik, John I. Bailey III and Patrick Dorval and hosted by the South African astronomer Steve Crawford and Blaine Lomberg of SAAO.

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