Direct measurement of stellar angular diameters by the VERITAS Cherenkov telescopes

Abstract

The angular size of a star is a critical factor in determining its basic properties1. Direct measurement of stellar angular diameters is difficult: at interstellar distances stars are generally too small to resolve by any individual imaging telescope. This fundamental limitation can be overcome by studying the diffraction pattern in the shadow cast when an asteroid occults a star2, but only when the photometric uncertainty is smaller than the noise added by atmospheric scintillation3. Atmospheric Cherenkov telescopes used for particle astrophysics observations have not generally been exploited for optical astronomy due to the modest optical quality of the mirror surface. However, their large mirror area makes them well suited for such high-time-resolution precision photometry measurements4. Here we report two occultations of stars observed by the Very Energetic Radiation Imaging Telescope Array System (VERITAS)5 Cherenkov telescopes with millisecond sampling, from which we are able to provide a direct measurement of the occulted stars’ angular diameter at the ≤0.1 mas scale. This is a resolution never achieved before with optical measurements and represents an order of magnitude improvement over the equivalent lunar occultation method6. We compare the resulting stellar radius with empirically derived estimates from temperature and brightness measurements, confirming the latter can be biased for stars with ambiguous stellar classifications.

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Fig. 1: Ingress and egress light curves for both asteroid occultations.
Fig. 2: Individual and combined stellar size measurements.
Fig. 3: Comparison of the angular size measurements and stellar radius estimates in this work compared with those available in the literature.
Fig. 4: Comparison with the available directly measured stellar angular size measurements.

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed in this study are available from the corresponding authors on request.

Code availability

The computer code used to analyse the data in this study is available from the corresponding authors on request.

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Acknowledgements

This research is supported by grants from the US Department of Energy Office of Science, the US National Science Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution, by NSERC in Canada, and by the Young Investigators Program of the Helmholtz Association. We acknowledge the excellent work of the technical support staff at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory and at the collaborating institutions in the construction and operation of the instrument. This work has made use of data and updates by S. Preston from http://www.asteroidoccultation.com; data from the JPL Small-Body Database browser at http://ssd.jpl.nasa.gov; data from the European Space Agency (ESA) mission Gaia (https://www.cosmos.esa.int/gaia), processed by the Gaia Data Processing and Analysis Consortium (DPAC, https://www.cosmos.esa.int/web/gaia/dpac/consortium); and the SIMBAD database, operated at CDS, Strasbourg, France. The authors acknowledge discussions with S. Cikota and J. Cortina.

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Contributions

All authors contributed equally to the operation of the VERITAS telescopes. M.K.D. conceived the enhanced current monitor system used in these observations; T.H. proposed the occultation observations; A.M.J., D.A.W., T.J.W., J.Q. and A.B. took the observations; M.K.D., T.H. and N.M. reduced and analysed the data; M.K.D. and T.H. wrote the main paper and Methods.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to M. K. Daniel or T. Hassan.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Journal peer review information: Nature Astronomy thanks Gerard van Belle, Andrea Richichi and Ellyn Baines for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Benbow, W., Bird, R., Brill, A. et al. Direct measurement of stellar angular diameters by the VERITAS Cherenkov telescopes. Nat Astron 3, 511–516 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-019-0741-z

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