Page last updated at 23:32 GMT, Wednesday, 7 April 2010 00:32 UK

'First image' of star's eclipse captured by scientists

The star undergoing an eclipse
Scientists said the eclipse is caused by a thin disc of opaque dust

The first close-up image of an eclipse beyond the solar system has been captured by scientists.

Astronomers at the University of St Andrews worked on an international study of the star Epsilon Aurigae, from the Auriga constellation.

Every 27 years it becomes dimmer, a phenomenon which lasts for two years.

The physicists combined light from four telescopes to get the first image of the eclipse, which is 140 times sharper than images from the Hubble telescope.

The team described the discovery as a "terrifying image, like something from a Tolkien book".

'Kill the light'

The eclipse was first observed by the German astronomer Johann Fritsch in 1821.

Dr Ettore Pedretti and Dr Nathalie Thureau, from St Andrews, took part in the research, which was led by Brian Kloppenborg from the University of Denver.

Dr Pedretti said: "From the image, we can confirm that the eclipse of Epsilon Aurigae is caused by a thin disc of opaque dust trailed by a massive and unseen companion.

"Like David, tiny particles of dust are able to kill the light of this 'Goliath' star."

Dr Thureau designed some of the optics for the light-combining technique used to view the star, which is called optical interferometry.

'Astronomers puzzled'

"With this image we have solved a 180-year-old mystery," she said.

"Astronomers have been puzzled for more than a century about this star and we took two pictures that may finally solve the mystery.

"In fact we will continue to capture images since the eclipse lasts about two years."

The two academics intend to form the first group in Scotland to build instruments for optical and infrared interferometry.

"Our aim is to exploit existing interferometers around the world in order to take detailed pictures of distant and interesting astronomical objects that are not achievable even with the largest single telescopes," explained Dr Pedretti.

The research will be published in the journal, Nature.

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