Picture of the Week 2009

28 December 2009

Rendering of the E-ELT

A new architectural concept drawing of ESO’s planned European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) shows the telescope at work, with its dome open and its record-setting 40-metre-class primary mirror pointed to the sky. In this illustration, clouds float over the valley overlooked by the E-ELT’s summit. The comparatively tiny pickup truck parked at the base of the E-ELT helps to give a sense of the scale of this massive telescope. The E-ELT dome will be similar in size to a football stadium, with a diameter at its base of over 100 m and a height of over 80 m.

Scheduled to begin operations early in the next decade, the E-ELT will help track down Earth-like planets around other stars in the “habitable zones” where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy. The E-ELT will also make fundamental contributions to cosmology by measuring the properties of the first stars and galaxies and probing the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

The design for the E-ELT shown here was published in 2009 and is preliminary.


21 December 2009

Telescope Domes Clustered at La Silla

This view of ESO’s La Silla Observatory reveals the splendour of the night sky and shows several of the domed telescopes located at the site. The glowing band of the plane of the Milky Way Galaxy slants through the sky from the upper left to the lower middle, where the now closed GPO (Grand Prism Objectif) dome, which also hosted the Marly 1-metre telescope, looms in the foreground, together with the Danish 1.54-metre telescope. The ghostly, bluish objects above the GPO’s dome are two galaxies belonging to the Milky Way’s close neighbourhood and known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

La Silla’s collection of domed telescopes also includes the ESO 3.6-metre telescope, home to HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher), the world’s foremost exoplanet hunter, and the 3.58-metre New Technology Telescope, which broke new ground for telescope engineering and design, and was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror (active optics), a technology developed at ESO and now applied to most of the world’s current large telescopes. La Silla is one of the most scientifically productive ground-based facilities in the world after ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) observatory, both of which are located in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.


14 December 2009

The European Extremely Large Telescope

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), with a main mirror 39 metres in diameter, will be the world’s biggest eye on the sky when it becomes operational early in the next decade.  The E-ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time, and aim for a number of notable firsts, including tracking down Earth-like planets around other stars in the “habitable zones” where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy. 

The telescope design itself is revolutionary and is based on a novel five-mirror scheme that results in exceptional image quality. The primary mirror consists of almost 800 segments, each 1.4 metres wide, but only 50 mm thick.  The optical design calls for an immense secondary mirror 4.2 metres in diameter, bigger than the primary mirrors of any of ESO's telescopes at La Silla.

Adaptive mirrors are incorporated into the optics of the telescope to compensate for the fuzziness in the stellar images introduced by atmospheric turbulence. One of these mirrors is supported by more than 6000 actuators that can distort its shape a thousand times per second.

The telescope will have several science instruments. It will be possible to switch from one instrument to another within minutes. The telescope and dome will also be able to change positions on the sky and start a new observation in a very short time.

The very detailed design for the E-ELT shown here is preliminary.


7 December 2009

Transporting an Auxiliary Telescope

ESO astronomer Yuri Beletsky captured images of the transport of one of the 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes (AT) that compose, together with their larger 8.2-metre companions, ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) array. The AT was moved with the utmost care from the base camp, where it had been undergoing maintenance, including the recoating of its mirrors, back to the VLT platform on top of Cerro Paranal.

The ATs form part of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI), allowing this unique facility to operate every night. The ATs are mounted on tracks and can be moved between precisely defined observing positions, collecting light that is then combined in the VLTI. The ATs are very unusual telescopes, as they are self-contained in individual ultra-compact protective domes, and travel with their own electronics, ventilation, hydraulics and cooling systems. Each AT has a transporter that lifts the telescope and moves it from one position to the next. Although for the transfer down to base camp, ESO engineers and technicians rely on a more traditional means of transport, the truck.


30 November 2009

GalileoMobile Completes Exciting Journey

After almost two months of life-changing experiences, bringing the excitement of astronomy to young children in Chile, Bolivia and Peru, the journey of the GalileoMobile Project has come to an end.

As illustrated in this image, the astronomers and educators in the Galilomobile team visited numerous schools and villages during their expedition, engaging young students in educational activities about astronomy and science, and offering amazing stargazing opportunities to the local communities, in a region with one of the clearest skies on Earth.

Last week the team visited ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), then continued to Taltal, the closest town to the VLT’s home, Cerro Paranal. Around sunset on 26 November, the GalileoMobile team showed the community of Taltal the highlights of the whole voyage, a voyage that covered around 5,000 kilometres through the Andes. The GalileoMobile was received with great enthusiasm by the people of Taltal. Hundreds of students took part to a ceremony that took place in the main square in Taltal, led by Guillermo Hidalgo, the town’s Mayor. The event ended up with a massive star party, which marked the perfect closing of this Special Project of the International Year of Astronomy 2009.

The GalileoMobile is supported by the European Southern Observatory, whose host country is Chile, the Max Planck Society (MPG/MPE/MPA/MPS), NORDITA, Regione Molise and the Optical Society of America.

More information on the GalileoMobile project can be found in the ESO Press Release eso0937.


23 November 2009

The Moon in Conjunction with Venus and Jupiter (artistic composition)

This dramatic triptych shows the Moon rise from left to right through the night sky over ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) observatory at Paranal in northern Chile. Already aloft in the heavens and glowing in the centre of the image is Venus, Earth’s closest planetary neighbour. Shining to Venus’s right, the giant, though more distant planet, Jupiter appears as a small orb that seems to rotate around Venus as time passes. Such apparent celestial near misses — although the heavenly bodies are actually tens to hundreds of millions of kilometres apart — are called conjunctions.

Still other sights delight in the sky over Paranal. The radiant, reddish plane of the Milky Way smoulders on the horizon, with massive bands of dust giving this bright region a mottled complexion. On the ground, an 8.2-metre VLT Unit Telescope on the right and a 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescope to the left silently witness the splendour above, while probing the sky to address some of astronomy’s remaining mysteries. The triptych is composed of three exposures of the Moon, Venus and Jupiter and one exposure of the Paranal telescopes.


16 November 2009

Weather balloons on Paranal in support of the E-ELT

A probe was launched last Friday (13 November 2009) from ESO’s Paranal observatory in northern Chile — home of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) — aboard a weather balloon. Such probes, called radiosondes, measure various atmospheric parameters and transmit them to a receiver on the ground. Researchers from ESO, the University of Lethbridge (Canada) and Universidad de Valparaiso (Chile) are currently in the middle of a 12-day programme, during which they plan to launch 29 radiosondes. Each night, parallel observations with the VLT instruments UVES, CRIRES and VISIR are carefully orchestrated to coincide with two additional radiosonde launches, while an infrared radiometer provides continuous coverage. This powerful combination of instruments and methods will provide a better understanding of the distribution and amount of water vapour in the atmosphere above Paranal, which is highly relevant for astronomical observations. The knowledge gained from these data can be used to optimise science operations at the VLT and, in the future, at the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

The team members are: Arlette Chacón, Lissette Cortes, and Lizett Illanes (Universidad de Valparaiso), Richard Querel and Greg Tompkins (University of Lethbridge), and Gerardo Avila, Gordon Gillet, Carlos Guirao, Reinhard Hanuschik, Florian Kerber, Gaspare LoCurto, Marc Sarazin, Alain Smette (ESO), Michel Cure (U Valparaiso) and David Naylor (U Lethbridge).


9 November 2009

Rare 360-degree Panorama of the Southern Sky*

The Milky Way arches across this rare 360-degree panorama of the night sky above the Paranal platform, home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. The image was made from 37 individual frames with a total exposure time of about 30 minutes, taken in the early morning hours. The Moon is just rising and the zodiacal light shines above it, while the Milky Way stretches across the sky opposite the observatory.

The open telescope domes of the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical observatory are all visible in the image: the four smaller 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes that can be used together in the interferometric mode, and the four giant 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes. To the right in the image and below the arc of the Milky Way, two of our galactic neighbours, the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, can be seen.

An amazing interactive virtual tour is available here


2 November 2009

Creating a Star

A laser beam shoots out of Yepun, the fourth Unit Telescope of Europe’s flagship observatory, ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). This beam is used to create an artificial star above Paranal to assist the adaptive optics instruments on the VLT. Adaptive optics is a technique that allows astronomers to overcome the blurring effect of the atmosphere and obtain images almost as sharp as would be possible if the whole telescope were placed in space, above Earth's atmosphere.

Adaptive optics, however, requires a nearby reference star that has to be relatively bright, thereby limiting the area of the sky that can be surveyed. To overcome this difficulty, astronomers at Paranal use a powerful laser that creates an artificial star where and when they need it (see eso0607 and eso0727).

Launching such a powerful laser from a telescope is a state-of-the-art technology, whose set-up and operation is a continuous challenge. As seen from the image, this is, however, a technology now well mastered on Paranal. The image was taken from inside the dome of the telescope and reveals nicely how the laser is located on top of the 1.2-metre secondary mirror of the telescope.


26 October 2009

3D Glimpse into the Life of Two Astronomers

Sitting in the stunning environment surrounding ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, Chile, are Joe Liske from ESO and Eva Noyola from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. The photo is a still image from the recently released 3D film, The EYE 3D — Life and Research on Cerro Paranal, directed by Nikolai Vialkowitsch.

The movie, starring the two young scientists, as well as other people involved in the exciting activities at the VLT, offers a brand new, three-dimensional take on the life and research of astronomers. It has been produced by parallax raumprojektion and fact&film, in close collaboration with ESO and other partners and will be coming soon in cinemas across Germany.

Don’t forget to wear red-cyan glasses to enjoy the spectacular 3D effect!

Links


19 October 2009

A Supernova Duet in NGC 1448

Portrayed in this beautiful image is the spiral galaxy NGC 1448, with a prominent disc of young and very bright stars surrounding its small, shining core. Located about 60 million light-years away from the Sun, this galaxy has recently been a prolific factory of supernovae, the dramatic explosions that mark the death of stars : after a first one observed in this galaxy in 1983, two more have been discovered during the past decade.

Visible as a red dot inside the disc, in the upper right part of the image, is the supernova observed in 2003 (SN 2003hn), whereas another one, detected in 2001 (SN 2001el), can be noticed as a tiny blue dot in the central part of the image, just below the galaxy’s core. If captured at the peak of the explosion, a supernova might be as bright as the whole galaxy that hosts it.

This image was obtained using the FORS instrument mounted on one of the 8.2-metre telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope on top of Cerro Paranal, Chile. It combines exposures taken through three filters (B, V, R) on several occasions, between July 2002 and the end of November 2003. The field of view is 7 arcminutes.


12 October 2009

Early Morning on Paranal*

This amazing panorama shows the observing platform of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, in Chile. Taken in the early morning, with the Moon still high in the sky, the air of peace and tranquility is in stark contrast to the frantic activity at the observatory. The four giant 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes of the VLT are all targeting specific celestial objects, helping astronomers in their daily quest to understand the mysteries of the Universe. A laser is fired from Unit Telescope 4, Yepun, to help the adaptive optics system of the telescope, and counteract the blurring effect of the atmosphere, allowing very sharp images to be obtained. Meanwhile, three of the four smaller 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes are working together in interferometric mode to obtain an even more detailed view of a different cosmic object.

A QuickTime VR is also available on this link.

#L


5 October 2009

A Cosmic Flame

Sparkling at the edge of a giant cloud of gas and dust, the Flame Nebula, also referred to as NGC 2024, is in fact the hideout of a cluster of young, blue, massive stars, whose light sets the gas ablaze. Located 1,300 light-years away towards the constellation of Orion, the nebula owes its typical colour to the glow of hydrogen atoms, heated by the stars. The latter are obscured by a dark, forked dusty structure in the centre of the image and are only revealed by infrared observations.

This image is based on data acquired with the 1.5-metre Danish telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, combining three exposures in the filters B (40 seconds), V (80 seconds) and R (40 seconds).


28 September 2009

Diving into the Lagoon Nebula

Through three giant images, the GigaGalaxy Zoom project reveals the full sky as it appears with the unaided eye from one of the darkest deserts on Earth, then zooms in on a rich region of the Milky Way using an amateur telescope, and finally uses the power of a professional telescope to reveal the details of a famous nebula. In this way, the project links the sky we can all see with the deep, “hidden” cosmos that astronomers study on a daily basis and allows the viewers to take a breathtaking dive into our Milky Way. The wonderful quality of the images is a testament to the splendour of the night sky at ESO’s sites in Chile, which are the most productive astronomical observatories in the world.


21 September 2009

Paranal under snow

Cerro Paranal, in the Chilean Atacama Desert, is considered one of the best astronomical observing sites in the world. It is home to ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the flagship facility for European ground-based astronomy.

The humidity at Paranal is generally below five percent and the overall precipitation is only 4 mm per year — a rather dry place indeed. It does, on very rare occasions, snow on this 2600-metre-high peak as illustrated by this beautiful image taken in 2002. The snow-covered terrain gleams under a bright blue sky as the snow storm passes.


14 September 2009

A Cosmic Embrace

In this image, two spiral galaxies, similar in looks to the Milky Way, are participating in a cosmic ballet, which, in a few billion years, will end up in a complete galactic merger — the two galaxies will become a single, bigger one.

Located about 150 million light-years away in the constellation of Canis Major (the Great Dog), NGC 2207 — the larger of the two — and its companion, IC 2163, form a magnificent pair. English astronomer John Herschel discovered them in 1835.

The fatal gravitational attraction of NGC 2207 is already wreaking havoc throughout its smaller partner, distorting IC 2163’s shape and flinging out stars and gas into long streamers that extend over 100,000 light-years. The space between the individual stars in a galaxy is so vast, however, that when these galaxies collide, virtually none of the stars in them will actually physically smash into each other.

This image was captured with the ESO Faint Object Spectrograph and Camera (EFOSC2) through three wide band filters (B, V, R). EFOSC2 has a 4.1 x 4.1 arcminute field of view and is attached to the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.


7 September 2009

A European ALMA antenna takes shape

In this photograph taken on 18 August 2009, a European ALMA antenna takes shape at the observatory's Operations Support Facility (OSF). ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, is a revolutionary astronomical telescope, comprising an array of 66 giant 12-metre and 7-metre diameter antennas observing at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths. The telescope is being built on the breathtaking location of the Chajnantor plateau, at 5000 metres altitude in the Chilean Andes. The OSF, at which the antennas are being assembled and tested, is at an altitude of 2900 metres. ESO has contracted with the AEM (Alcatel Alenia Space France, Alcatel Alenia Space Italy, European Industrial Engineering S.r.L., MT Aerospace) Consortium for the supply of 25 of the 12-metre diameter ALMA antennas, with options to increase the number to 32. ALMA is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.


31 August 2009

Cosmic Bubble NGC 6781

Stars such as our Sun do not contain enough mass to finish their lives in the glorious explosions known as supernovae. However, they are still able to salute their imminent demise into dense, Earth-sized embers called white dwarfs by first expelling colourful shells of gas known as planetary nebulae. This misnomer comes from the similarity in appearance of these spherical mass expulsions to giant planets when seen through small telescopes.

NGC 6781 is a nice representative of these cosmic bubbles. The planetary nebula lies a few thousand light-years away towards the constellation of Aquila (the Eagle) and is approximately two light-years across. Within NGC 6781, shells of gas blown off from the faint, but very hot, central star’s surface expand out into space. These shells shine under the harsh ultraviolet radiation from the progenitor star in intricate and beautiful patterns. The central star will steadily cool down and darken, eventually disappearing from view into cosmic oblivion.

This image was captured with the ESO Faint Object Spectrograph and Camera (EFOSC2) through three wide band filters (B, V, R) and two narrow-band ones (H-alpha, OIII). EFOSC2 is attached to the 3.6-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. EFOSC2 has a field of view of 4.1 x 4.1 arcminutes.


24 August 2009

Orion above the VLT

The great hunter Orion hangs above ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), in this stunning, previously unseen, image. As the VLT is in the Southern Hemisphere, Orion is seen here head down, as if plunging towards the Chilean Atacama Desert.

At night the four giant 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes of the VLT are all turned skywards to help astronomers in their quest to understand the Universe. The band of the Milky Way, crisscrossed by contrasting dark dust lanes, stretches up over the VLT’s Unit Telescope 3 (Melipal), with the bright star Capella glinting just above the telescope. Up and to the left, Orion’s belt and sword, containing the Orion Nebula, lie between the blue star Rigel and the orange Betelgeuse. The red Rosetta Nebula is seen in the middle part of the Milky Way, while Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, hangs above the scene. The red patch just above the VLT Unit Telescope 2 (Kueyen) is the California Nebula, nicely offset by the blue of the beautiful Pleiades star cluster a little to the left and above.


17 August 2009

The VLT platform on top of Cerro Paranal

This image shows the platform on the summit of Cerro Paranal, in Northern Chile that houses the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Three of the enclosures protecting the 8.2-metre diameter VLT Unit Telescopes (UTs) are shown and the photographer was on the top of the fourth one, about 35 metres above the platform. At night the huge doors in the enclosures slide open and the 275-tonne top parts of these buildings rotate so that the telescope can observe any part of the sky. The pick-up truck in front of the first UT helps give the scale of this 10-story high building. On the left of the image the rails on which the 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs) can be moved to different observing stations are visible. Two of the four ATs are visible in the picture. The low building in the lower left corner houses the VLT Interferometer laboratory, where the light from several telescopes can be combined, a technique that reveals details much smaller than can be seen with a single telescope.

Behind the telescopes the desert hills surrounding Cerro Paranal stretch into the distance. Further away the cloud-covered Pacific Ocean can be seen: only 12 km away but 2.6 km lower down.


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