Picture of the Week 2009

10 August 2009

The Galactic Glory of NGC 2280

This new image of the galaxy NGC 2280 shows the extent of its massive spiral arms that reach far into the surrounding space. These star-filled tentacles taper off into wispy blue clouds of illuminated and glowing gas well away from the central, bright bulge of the galaxy. Found towards the constellation of Canis Major (the Greater Dog), NGC 2280 is thought to be similar in shape to our own Milky Way galaxy.

NGC 2280 whirls in the cosmos about 75 million light-years from us; this snapshot therefore shows the galaxy as it appeared when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.

The very bright stars that sparkle like diamonds in the image, as well as the many other stars of various colours, are all in the foreground of our view, as they lie much closer to us than NGC 2280.

The image was captured with the ESO Faint Object Spectrograph and Camera (EFOSC2) through three filters (B, V, R). EFOSC2 was 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.

3 August 2009

The Milky Way Shines on Paranal

The Milky Way blazes above the European Southern Observatory (ESO) facilities at Mount Paranal in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert. Paranal hosts the world’s most advanced ground-based astronomical observatory, the Very Large Telescope (VLT), and is home to two new telescopes for large imaging surveys currently under construction, the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) and the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA). Both are expected to “take up duty” in the 2009-2010 timeframe.

This photograph shows an edge-on view of the Milky Way’s glowing plane slicing across the night sky, laced by bands of dust and dark gas. Taken with a digital camera using a three-minute exposure, the photograph also reveals a bit of action on the ground. To the left, a vehicle with its parking lights on stops lets out a passenger. Though bathed by the light of the Milky Way, the high-altitude desert remains quite dark. To illuminate the rightward path to the underground entrance ramp of the ‘Residencia’, where staff and visitors stay, the passenger takes along a small flashlight, seen as a squiggly bright line. In the lower right, the glass dome on the Residencia’s roof reflects the starry sky overhead. One of our Milky Way’s galactic satellites, the Large Magellanic Cloud, is seen hanging above the Residencia in the lower right corner of the image.

27 July 2009

ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) Array Now in Google Earth

This image shows how ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility looks through the eyes of Google Earth. This popular software allows users to see the world from above, ranging from a satellite to a bird’s eye view. Now, Google Earth users can swoop around detailed 3-D models of the massive structures housing the four 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes (UTs) atop Mount Paranal in the Chilean Atacama Desert. Also visible in this sample image are the four 1.8-metre movable Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs), the enclosure of the 2.4-metre VLT Survey Telescope (VST), and technical and support buildings. The models can be downloaded from ESO’s VLT page, and opened using Google Earth.

20 July 2009

The European Extremely Large Telescope (Artist’s rendering)

This new artist’s impression shows the future European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which is currently being planned by ESO. This revolutionary new ground-based telescope will be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope ever conceived, and will serve as “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

The present concept is for a telescope with a mirror 39 metres in diameter, able to capture images of the sky about a tenth the size of the full Moon. The telescope will contain five mirrors, a novel configuration that results in exceptional image quality. The largest (primary) mirror will consist of almost 800 segments, each 1.4 metres wide but only 50 mm thick. The optical system’s design also calls for an immense secondary mirror measuring 4.2 metres in diameter, which is almost as large as the biggest primary mirrors used in today’s telescopes.

With the start of operations planned early in the next decade, the E-ELT will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time. The massive telescope will take aim at a number of notable astronomical firsts, including tracking down Earth-like planets orbiting other stars in the “habitable zones” where life could exist — one of the hottest topics of modern observational astronomy. It will also perform “stellar archaeology” in nearby galaxies and make fundamental contributions to cosmology by measuring the properties of the first stars and galaxies. In addition, the E-ELT will probe the nature of dark matter and dark energy. During these scientific quests, astronomers eagerly anticipate some unexpected twists — new and unforeseeable questions will surely arise from discoveries made with the E-ELT.

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

Other E-ELT images are also available on this link.

13 July 2009

The Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope — VISTA

This photograph from early 2009 shows the VISTA telescope, which is currently completing tests in its dome at Paranal in Chile. VISTA, along with the VST (VLT Survey Telescope) is one of two ESO survey telescopes about to start work surveying the southern skies.

VISTA has a main mirror that is 4.1 metres across and is by far the largest telescope in the world dedicated to surveying the sky at near-infrared wavelengths. It was conceived and developed by the United Kingdom and became an in-kind contribution to ESO as part of the UK's accession agreement, with the subscription paid by the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The main mirror is the most highly curved mirror of its size ever made and at the heart of VISTA is a 3-tonne camera containing 16 special detectors sensitive to infrared light with a combined total of 67 megapixels. It will have widest coverage of any astronomical near-infrared camera.

Observing at wavelengths longer than those visible to the human eye will allow VISTA to study objects that may be almost impossible to see in visible light because they are cool, obscured by dust clouds or because their light has been stretched towards redder wavelengths by the expansion of space during the light’s long journey from the early Universe.

VISTA will be able to detect and catalogue objects over the whole southern sky with a sensitivity that is 40 times greater than achieved with earlier infrared sky surveys such as the highly successful Two Micron All-Sky Survey. The start of VISTA surveys is planned for early in 2010.

This view looks down the stubby tube of VISTA. The white tubular structure in the foreground is the support for the secondary mirror and, just below the centre of the picture the top of the camera can be seen, complete with a light blue optical window. The dark blue structure either side of the tube is the telescope's fork mount.

6 July 2009

Start of construction of new ALMA Chile headquarters

Excavation work has just begun for construction of the Santiago Central Office (SCO) building of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) project.

The building, in the Vitacura district of the Chilean capital, will be adjacent to the Santiago offices of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which is the European partner in the global ALMA project, and which is responsible for constructing the ALMA SCO.

The SCO building will have a size of almost 7,000 square metres over two storeys, with underground parking for 130 cars, which will allow some of the existing above-ground parking spaces to be moved underground and replaced with green areas. For the construction, eleven old trees were moved to a new location at ESO, in a meticulous operation led by experts.

ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence, 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 facility is currently under construction on the 5000m high plateau of Chajnantor in the Chilean Andes. The construction of the ALMA Santiago Central Office is scheduled for completion in 2010. ALMA is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile.

29 June 2009

The future ALMA array on Chajnantor (artist’s rendering)

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is the largest astronomical project in existence. It is a revolutionary astronomical telescope, comprising an array of 66 giant 12-metre and 7-metre diameter antennas observing at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths. It is being built on the breathtaking location of the Chajnantor plateau, at 5000 metres altitude in the Chilean Andes, and will start scientific observations in 2011.

In this artist’s rendering, the ALMA array is seen on the Chajnantor plateau in an extended configuration. The antennas, which each weigh over 100 tons, can be moved to different positions with custom-built transporter vehicles in order to reconfigure the array.

ALMA is the most powerful telescope for observing the cool Universe — molecular gas and dust as well as the relic radiation of the Big Bang. It will study the building blocks of stars, planetary systems, galaxies and life itself.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ESO is the European partner in ALMA.

22 June 2009

Panorama of the Chilean night sky

This Quicktime interactive panorama movie shows the night sky over ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile and reveals its incredible richness and beauty.

To launch the panorama please click the link on the right under QuickTime VR.

To navigate this dual landscape and starscape, left-click on the image and continue pressing the button as you drag the mouse in the direction you would like to see. To zoom in and out, press "shift" or "ctrl".

Moving towards the right, the panorama shows the Milky Way band blazing over the horizon. Ascending the mountain that comes into view, one sees ESO’s Very Large Telescope array and the red beam of its Laser Guide Star. Still further right, the VISTA peak rises, with the lingering Gegenschein aglow above it. Other sights in the sky over Paranal include the Andromeda Galaxy, the Pleiades and the Hyades star clusters, the constellation of Orion, and the brightest star in the sky Sirius, seen low on the horizon. The Milky Way’s galactic neighbours, the Large and the Small Magellanic Clouds, also shine brightly overhead.

Another interactive panorama also taken from Paranal on a different night and with the constellations highlighted is available at: http://www.astrosurf.com/sguisard/Anim-astro/Paranal-ZL-MW/SGU-Paranal-Zodiacal_Light-MW-const_names.html

Happy viewing.

15 June 2009

A Milky Way cousin

NGC 2613 is a rarely imaged spiral galaxy located about 60 million light years away towards the southern constellation of Pyxis (the mariner’s compass). It is thought to resemble our own Milky Way. This image is based on data acquired with the 1.5-metre Danish telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, through three filters (B, V, R).

8 June 2009

Ready for the night

Three of the four Unit Telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) are shown here getting ready for another exceptional night of observations on top of Cerro Paranal, in Chile. Prior to every night, the engineers in charge go through a routine of manoeuvres to prepare the flagship facility of European astronomy. The VLT is the world’s most advanced optical instrument, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors of 8.2-metre diameter and four movable 1.8-metre diameter Auxiliary Telescopes. One of the Auxiliary Telescopes is shown on the right of the image.

2 June 2009

A Giant Galaxy

Centaurus A is our nearest giant galaxy, at a distance of about 13 million light-years in the southern constellation of Centaurus, and as such, it is one of the most extensively studied objects in the southern sky. It is an elliptical galaxy, currently merging with a companion spiral galaxy, resulting in areas of intense star formation and making it one of the most spectacular objects in the sky. Centaurus A hosts a very active and highly luminous central region, caused by the presence of a supermassive black hole with a mass of about 100 million solar masses (see eso0109), and is the source of strong radio and X-ray emission. Thick dust layers almost completely obscure the galaxy's centre. This image is based on data acquired with the 1.5-metre Danish telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, through three filters (B, V, R).

25 May 2009

A VLT Unit Telescope and the Moon

The Moon is normally much too large and bright to be a target for the 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes (UTs) that make up ESO’s Very Large Telescope, whose sheer power is best reserved for much fainter and much more distant astronomical objects, such as exoplanets or exploding stars located at the edge of the visible Universe. But back in 2002, one of the UTs was not yet equipped with an instrument at one of its Nasmyth platforms (located on the side of the telescope), and astronomers and engineers could have an unusual view of our natural satellite. In this case, the Moon's image was projected onto a sandblasted glass plate. Since then, the Very Large Telescope has been equipped with no less than 14 instruments, including three for interferometry, making it truly the world’s most advanced observatory.

18 May 2009

The Southern Pinwheel

Located about 15 million light-years away towards the Hydra (the sea serpent) constellation, Messier 83 is a nearby face-on barred spiral with a classic grand design form. It is the main member of a small galactic group including NGC 5253 and about 9 dwarf galaxies. Messier 83 stretches over 40,000 light-years, making it roughly 2.5 times smaller than our own Milky Way. However, in some respects, Messier 83 is quite similar to our own galaxy. Both the Milky Way and Messier 83 possess a bar across their galactic nucleus, the dense spherical conglomeration of stars seen at the centre of the galaxies.

Messier 83 has been a prolific producer of supernovae, with six observed in the past century. This is indicative of an exceptionally high rate of star formation coinciding with its classification as a starburst galaxy. Despite its symmetric appearance, the central 1,000 light-years of the galaxy shows an unusually high level of complexity, containing both a double nucleus and a double circumnuclear starburst ring. The nature of the double nucleus is uncertain but the off centre nucleus could be a remnant core of a small galaxy that merged with Messier 83 in the past. The star clusters in the nuclear starburst rings are mostly young stars between 5 and 10 million years old. This image is based on data acquired with the 1.5-metre Danish telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, through three filters (B, V, R).

11 May 2009

ALMA Antennas at OSF

View from inside the main building of the 2,900 metre high ALMA Operation Support Facility. Three antennas currently being tested are seen outside. On 30 April, scientists and engineers working on the world’s largest astronomical project, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), have achieved the successful linking of two ALMA astronomical antennas, synchronised with a precision of one millionth of a millionth of a second, to observe the planet Mars. The observations demonstrate ALMA’s full hardware functionality and connectivity. When completed around 2012, ALMA will comprise an array of 66 giant 12-metre and 7-metre diameter antennas observing at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths.

Read more about this milestone in eso0918.

4 May 2009

The Observing Platform as the Crow Flies *

This aerial shot of ESO’s Very Large Telescope array on top of the 2600-metre-high Cerro Paranal in the Chilean Atacama Desert beautifully shows the various stations for the mobile Auxiliary Telescopes. The largest structures are the enclosures of the four 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes of the VLT. In the middle lies the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) laboratory.

Contrary to other large astronomical telescopes, the VLT was designed from the beginning with the use of interferometry as a major goal. The VLTI combines light captured by two or three 8.2-metre VLT Unit Telescopes, dramatically increasing the spatial resolution and showing fine details of a large variety of celestial objects. However, most of the time, the large telescopes are used for other research purposes. They are therefore only available for interferometric observations during a limited number of nights every year. Thus, in order to exploit the VLTI each night and to achieve the full potential of this unique setup, some other smaller, 1.8-metre dedicated telescopes were included into the overall VLT concept. These telescopes, known as the VLTI Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs), are mounted on tracks and can be placed at precisely defined “parking” observing positions on the observatory platform (seen along the lines in the image). From these positions, their light beams are fed into the VLTI laboratory via a complex system of reflecting mirrors mounted in an underground system of tunnels.

Taken in 2005, this photo shows only two of the four ATs that are currently in operation. The enclosure on the upper right of the image will soon host the VLT Survey Telescope (VST).

24 April 2009

Distorted galaxy NGC 2442

The distorted galaxy NGC 2442, also known as the Meathook Galaxy, is located some 50 million light-years away in the constellation of Volans (the Flying Fish). The galaxy is 75,000 light-years wide and features two dusty spiral arms extending from a pronounced central bar that give it a hook-like appearance, hence its nickname. The galaxy’s distorted shape is most likely the result of a close encounter with a smaller, unseen galaxy. This image is based on data acquired with the 1.5-metre Danish telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, through three filters (B: 250 s, V: 187 s, R: 150 s).

20 April 2009

Lord Drayson opens JENAM 2009

Today, 20 April 2009, was the opening of the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science (JENAM 2009), which takes place at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. Lord Drayson, the British Minister of State for Science and Innovation, addressed the many attendees to this conference, expressing the importance of astronomy and space science for today’s society. He also visited the ESO stand where he was introduced to ESO’s flagship astronomical facility, the Very Large Telescope, by Tim de Zeeuw, the ESO Director General, and Patrick Roche, UK member of the ESO Council. Tim de Zeeuw also explained about the European Extremely Large Telescope, a project which the minister showed great interest for.

14 April 2009

Paranal Observatory and the Volcano Llullaillaco*

This marvellous aerial photograph of the home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), fully demonstrates the superb quality of the observing site. In the foreground we see the Paranal Observatory, located at an altitude of 2,600 metres on mount Paranal in Chile. In the background we can see the snow-capped, 6,720 meter-high volcano Llullaillaco, located a mind-boggling 190 km further East on the Argentinean border. This image is a testimony of the magnificent quality of the air and the ideal conditions for observing at this remote site.

Clearly visible in the image are the domes of the four giant 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes of the VLT, with the Control Building, where astronomers carry out the observations, in the foreground. Taken several years ago, this photograph does not show the Auxiliary Telescopes nor the dome of the soon to come VST Survey Telescope.


1 April 2009

Messier 100 and Supernova SN 2006X

Similar in appearance to our own Milky Way, Messier 100 is a grand spiral galaxy that presents an intricate structure, with a bright core and two prominent arms. The galaxy harbours numerous young and hot massive stars as well as extremely hot regions of ionised hydrogen. Two smaller arms are seen emerging from the centre and reaching towards the larger spiral arms. The galaxy, located 60 million light-years away, is slightly larger than the Milky Way, with a diameter of about 120,000 light-years. A supernova was discovered in M100 on 4 February 2006. Named SN 2006X, it is the 5th supernova to have been found in M100 since 1900. This image is based on data acquired with the 1.5 m Danish telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory in Chile, through three filters (B: 1390 s, V: 480 s, R: 245 s). The supernova is the brighter of the two stars seen just to the lower right of the galaxy centre.

30 March 2009

The Paranal Residencia at Night

Night view of the Paranal Observatory, obtained on 21 March 2009. The Residencia — the place where staff can eat and sleep — is visible in the foreground, while one can distinguish the 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope in the higher background. Yepun, the Unit Telescope no. 4, is seen using the laser guide star to assist the adaptive optics instruments on the VLT. This allows astronomers to obtain images free from the blurring effect of the atmosphere, regardless of the brightness and location on the sky of the observed target. The image shows the great value of the dark night sky above Paranal. The band of the Milky Way is running through the image vertically. Orion and the Orion Nebula can be seen in the upper left corner along with a number of other interesting deep-sky objects in Auriga, the Charioteer. Tremendous efforts are being put into preventing light pollution from the Residencia and surrounding cities. Only long exposures with sensitive digital cameras are able to reveal the dim lights from the residencia rooms.

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