Frank Eisenhauer receives 2020 Michelson Investigator Achievement Award

July 22, 2022

At the occasion of the 2022 SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation conference, the Lowell Observatory and the Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur awarded the 2020 Michelson Investigator Achievement Award to Dr. Frank Eisenhauer, on behalf of himself, the GRAVITY consortium and the ESO VLTI team for the groundbreaking results of VLTI-GRAVITY.

With GRAVITY, Frank Eisenhauer and the GRAVITY consortium developed a major, game-changing instrument for ground-based infrared astronomy. GRAVITY interferometrically combines the light of all four telescopes at ESO VLT. This allows astronomers to use the four telescopes simultaneously as a virtual 130m telescope. The GRAVITY consortium consists of the teams from MPE, LESIA at the Paris Observatory, IPAG at the University Grenoble, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, the University of Cologne, the Center for Astrophysics and Gravitation in Portugal, and ESO.

After a mere four years of science operation, GRAVITY has already provided many breakthroughs: Combining GRAVITY astrometry and SINFONI spectroscopy, the team was able to measure the gravitational redshift and relativistic precession in the orbit of the star S2 around the Galactic Center black hole SgrA*. The astronomers also used GRAVITY to observe gas swirl at around 30% the speed of light close to the innermost stable orbit around SgrA*. Thereby GRAVITY collected seemingly irrefutable evidence for the existence of a black hole at the center of our Galaxy. GRAVITY can also look outside our home galaxy: in the quasar 3C273, at a distance of ca. 1.4 billion light years, the instrument directly measured the rotation of the Broad Line Region, a set of clouds rotating around the black hole in the center of this galaxy. This allows, among other things, to measure the mass of this super-massive black hole. Further, GRAVITY can zoom onto exoplanets around nearby stars, and for example, could reveal the details of an exoplanet's atmosphere in the constellation of Pegasus.

GRAVITY is currently being upgraded with new adaptive optics, laser guide stars, and wide-field capabilities. Called GRAVITY+, this project will soon boost optical interferometry to the next level, then also opening up the extra-galactic sky for highest resolution observations, and providing sharper and sharper images for the observation of exoplanets.

The Michelson Interferometry Prize is awarded by the Lowell Observatory and the Observatoire de la Cote d’Azur (OCA) and honors outstanding achievement of optical interferometry as application to astrophysical research. Its complementary part is the Fizeau Prize, which focuses on innovative technical and theoretical work of optical interferometry.

Frank Eisenhauer studied physics at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and obtained his PhD in 1998 from the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He is currently a Senior Research Scientist at MPE and Adjunct Teaching Professor at TUM. From 1998-2004 Eisenhauer was leading the development of the world’s first adaptive-optics-assisted integral field spectrometer on an 8m-class telescope, SINFONI. He then became the leader of the GRAVITY instrument to combine the light from the four 8m VLT telescopes, which is operated at the VLT since 2016. The instrument is currently further developed into GRAVITY+, enhancing its capabilities and sensitivity.

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