Picture of the Week

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potw1240 — Picture of the Week
Iconic, Conical Licancabur Watches Over Chajnantor
1 October 2012: This impressive panoramic image depicts the Chajnantor Plateau — home of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — with the majestic Licancabur volcano in the background.  Watched over by Licancabur, a icy forest of penitentes (Spanish for “penitents”) cluster in the foreground. The penitentes are a curious natural phenomenon found in high-altitude regions. They are thin spikes of hardened snow or ice, with sharp edges pointing towards the Sun, reaching heights from a few centimetres up to several metres. You can read more about penitentes in a previous Picture of the Week (potw1221). The Licancabur volcano, with an altitude of 5920 metres, is the most iconic volcano in the area of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Its conical shape makes it easily recognisable even from very far away. It is located on the southernmost part of the border between Chile and Bolivia. The volcano contains one of the world’s highest ...
potw1239 — Picture of the Week
A Hard Day's Night Ahead
24 September 2012: Sunset is typically a sign that another working day is over. City lights are slowly switched on as people return home eager to enjoy the evening and a good night’s sleep. However, this does not apply to astronomers working at an observatory such as ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. Observing starts as soon as the Sun has disappeared below the horizon. Everything needs to be ready before dusk. This panoramic photograph captures the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) against a beautiful twilight on Cerro Paranal. The enclosures of the VLT stand out in the picture as the telescopes in them are readied for a night of studying the Universe. The VLT is the world’s most powerful advanced optical telescope, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with primary mirrors 8.2 metres in diameter and four movable 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs), which can be seen in the left corner of the image. The ...
potw1238 — Picture of the Week
ALMA and a Starry Night — a Joy to Behold
17 September 2012: A crystal-clear sky on any night is always a joy to behold. But if you are on the Chajnantor Plateau, at 5000 metres altitude in the Chilean Andes and one of the best places in the world for astronomical observations, it could be an experience that you’ll remember for your whole life. This panoramic view of Chajnantor shows the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) against a breathtaking starry night sky. In the foreground, we can see some of ALMA’s antennas, working together. The plateau appears curved, because of the effect of the wide-angle lens used. ALMA is the world’s most powerful telescope for studying the Universe at submillimetre and millimetre wavelengths. Construction work for ALMA will be completed in 2013, and a total of 66 of these high-precision antennas will be operating on the site. At the moment, the telescope is in its initial phase of Early ...
potw1237 — Picture of the Week
A Timeless Sanctuary in Santiago — The ESO Guesthouse, Then and Now
10 September 2012: ESO turns fifty this year, and to celebrate this important anniversary, we are showing you glimpses into our history. Once a month during 2012, a special Then and Now comparison Picture of the Week shows how things have changed over the decades at the La Silla and Paranal Observatory sites, the ESO facilities in Santiago de Chile, and the Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany. This month, we are showing a part of ESO that feels almost timeless. After a long intercontinental flight to Santiago, or the night-shifts of an observing run at the telescopes, what could be better than a comfortable staging post at which to recover and rest before the next part of the journey? From the organisation’s earliest years, ESO’s Guesthouse in Santiago has provided just this for visitors to the observatory’s sites in Chile. Our Then and Now photographs this month show the guesthouse lounge, in ...
potw1236 — Picture of the Week
A Surprising Superbubble
3 September 2012: This colourful new view shows the star-forming region LHA 120-N44 [1] in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way. This picture combines the view in visible light from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile with images in infrared light and X-rays from orbiting satellite observatories. At the centre of this very rich region of gas, dust and young stars lies the star cluster NGC 1929. Its massive stars produce intense radiation, expel matter at high speeds as stellar winds, and race through their short but brilliant lives to explode as supernovae. The winds and supernova shock waves have carved out a huge cavity, called a superbubble, in the surrounding gas. Observations with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory (shown here in blue) reveal hot regions created by these winds and shocks, while infrared data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope (shown in red) ...
potw1235 — Picture of the Week
Night Comes to Paranal
27 August 2012: Imagine that you have just watched a beautiful sunset from the top of Cerro Paranal. As the Atacama Desert silently fades into the night, ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) opens its powerful eyes on the Universe. With this spectacular 360-degree panorama, you can imagine the view that you would have if you were standing there, near the southern edge of the VLT’s platform. In the foreground, the fourth of the VLT’s Auxiliary Telescopes (AT4) is opening. To its left, the Sun has already set over the Pacific Ocean — covered by clouds below the altitude of Paranal, as usual. Across the rest of the platform, the other three Auxiliary Telescopes are seen in front of the large buildings of the four 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes. Finally, the Residencia and other basecamp facilities are also visible a little distance away, near the right-hand edge of the picture. As the night begins, imagine ...
potw1234 — Picture of the Week
Laser Guide Star Sweeps Across a Starry Sky
20 August 2012: A powerful laser beam from ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) paints the night sky over the Chilean Atacama Desert in this stunning image taken by Julien Girard. The Earth’s rotation during the 30-minute exposure — and the movement of the laser as it compensated for this — is why the beam appears to fan out. This is also why the stars are stretched into curved trails, revealing subtle differences in their colours. The laser is used to create a point of light — an artificial star — by making sodium atoms 90 kilometres up in the Earth’s atmosphere glow. Measurements of this so-called guide star are used to correct for the blurring effect of the atmosphere in astronomical observations — a technique known as adaptive optics. While sufficiently bright natural stars are also used for adaptive optics, a laser guide star can be positioned wherever it is needed, meaning that ...
potw1233 — Picture of the Week
Orion Watching Over ALMA
13 August 2012: Standing watch over the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), Orion, the Hunter, shines high in the Chilean night sky. With its distinctive hourglass shape and the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt in the centre, the constellation is easily recognisable. Taken from the southern hemisphere, this image shows Orion’s sword above the Belt. The sword is home to one of the most stunning features of the sky — the Orion Nebula — which appears as the middle “star” in the sword, its fuzzy nebulosity visible to the naked eye under good conditions. The three ALMA antennas visible in the image represent only a small part of the complete ALMA array, which has a total of 66 antennas. ALMA combines the signals from its antennas, separated over distances of up to 16 kilometres, to form a single giant telescope, using a technique called interferometry. While construction is not ...
potw1232 — Picture of the Week
From a Dirt Track to the World’s Leading Observatory
6 August 2012: ESO turns fifty this year, and to celebrate this important anniversary, we are showing you glimpses into our history. Once a month during 2012, a special Then and Now comparison Picture of the Week shows how things have changed over the decades at the La Silla and Paranal Observatory sites, the ESO offices in Santiago de Chile, and the Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany. This pair of pictures shows a view from the entrance of the Paranal Observatory site in northern Chile, looking towards the summit of Cerro Paranal, as seen in 1987 and in the present day. The Cerro Paranal region was first scouted out as a possible site for the future Very Large Telescope (VLT) in 1983 by a team including ESO’s Director General at that time, Lodewijk Woltjer (see The Messenger, No. 64, pp 5–8 for more information). In 1987 a dirt road to the summit ...
potw1231 — Picture of the Week
Red Cocoon Harbours Young Stars
30 July 2012: On Earth, cocoons are associated with new life. There are “cocoons” in space too, but, rather than protecting pupae as they transform into moths, they are the birthplaces of new stars. The red cloud seen in this image, taken with the EFOSC2 instrument on ESO’s New Technology Telescope, is a perfect example of one of these star-forming regions. This is a view of a cloud called RCW 88, which is located about ten thousand light-years away and is about nine light-years across. It is not made of silk, like a moth’s cocoon, but of glowing hydrogen gas that surrounds the recently formed stars. The new stars form from clouds of this hydrogen gas as they collapse under their own gravity. Some of the more developed stars, already shining brightly, can even be seen peering through the cloud. These hot young stars are very energetic and emit large amounts of ultraviolet ...
potw1230 — Picture of the Week
The Paranal basecamp from above
23 July 2012: Looking down from a vantage point at the ESO Very Large Telescope on Cerro Paranal in the Chilean Atacama Desert, the observatory’s basecamp stretches out below. The Paranal Residencia, a haven for those working on the mountain, can be seen near the centre with the dome on its roof. To the left of the Residencia, on the other side of the road, is the basecamp’s gymnasium, and to the left of that is the Mirror Maintenance Building (MMB), where the giant VLT mirrors are periodically cleaned and recoated. Behind the MMB is the site’s power station, and further to the left is the mechanical workshop building. Winding up the mountainside in the foreground is the Star Track, a walking path from the Residencia to the summit. The Sun had set about a quarter of an hour before this photograph was taken, leaving the basecamp bathed in beautiful orange light. This ...
potw1229 — Picture of the Week
An ALMA Antenna on the Move
16 July 2012: This photograph shows one of the 12-metre-diameter European antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) being moved at the project’s Operations Support Facility. Since this photograph was taken, this antenna, and others like it, have been put into operation as ALMA has begun scientific observations with a partial array (see eso1137). Most recently, the Call for Proposals for ALMA’s next phase of observations closed on Thursday 12 July. Over 1100 proposals were received from astronomers around the world. ALMA makes its observations on the Chajnantor plateau at an altitude of 5000 metres. Once construction is completed, ALMA will have an array of 66 high-precision 12-metre- and 7-metre-diameter antennas, spread over distances of up to 16 kilometres, working together as a single telescope at wavelengths of 0.32 to 3.6 millimetres. More than half of the 66 antennas are already on Chajnantor (see ann12035). Twenty-five ALMA antennas are being provided by ...
potw1228 — Picture of the Week
The Cat's Paw Remastered
9 July 2012: The Cat’s Paw Nebula is revisited in a combination of exposures from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope and expert amateur astronomers Robert Gendler and Ryan M. Hannahoe. The distinctive shape of the nebula is revealed in reddish puffy clouds of glowing gas against a dark sky dotted with stars. The image was made by combining existing observations from the 2.2-metre MPG/ESO telescope of the La Silla Observatory in Chile (see ESO Photo Release eso1003) with 60 hours of exposures on a 0.4-metre telescope taken by Gendler and Hannahoe. The resolution of the existing 2.2-metre MPG/ESO telescope observations was combined (by using their “luminance” or brightness) with the colour information from Gendler and Hannahoe’s observations to produce a beautiful combination of data from amateur and professional telescopes. For example, the additional colour information brings out the faint blue nebulosity in the central region, which is not seen in the original ESO image, while ...
potw1227 — Picture of the Week
An Oasis for Astronomers — ESO’s Paranal Residencia Then and Now
2 July 2012: ESO turns fifty this year, and to celebrate this important anniversary, we are showing you glimpses into our history. Once a month during 2012, a special Then and Now comparison Picture of the Week shows how things have changed over the decades at the La Silla and Paranal Observatory sites, the ESO offices in Santiago de Chile, and the Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany. Since February 2002 (see eso0205), the Paranal Residencia has provided accommodation for people working shifts at ESO’s flagship observatory site. Paranal, in Chile’s Atacama Desert, is the home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). This month, our Then and Now photographs — both taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Gerhard Hüdepohl — give us a unique view of how this oasis in the desert was built. The historical photograph shows the Residencia under construction at the end of 2000. The building was designed by German architecture ...
potw1226 — Picture of the Week
Mars, 2099?
25 June 2012: On a cold dark night on Mars, in the middle of an arid desert, a narrow road lit by artificial lights winds its way up to a lonely human outpost on the top of an old mountain. Or at least, that’s what a science fiction fan might make of this almost unearthly view. The photograph actually shows ESO’s Paranal Observatory, home to the Very Large Telescope (VLT), on Earth. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine it as a future view of Mars, perhaps at the end of the century. Which is why Julien Girard, who took this photograph, calls it “Mars 2099”. Located at 2600 metres altitude, ESO’s Paranal Observatory sits in one of the driest and most desolate areas on Earth, in Chile’s Atacama Desert. The landscape is so Martian, in fact, that the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA test their Mars rovers in this region. For example, an ...
potw1225 — Picture of the Week
Yepun’s Laser and the Magellanic Clouds
18 June 2012: One of the major enemies of astronomers is the Earth’s atmosphere, which makes celestial objects appear blurry when observed by ground-based telescopes. To counteract this, astronomers use a technique called adaptive optics, in which computer-controlled deformable mirrors are adjusted hundreds of times per second to correct for the distortion of the atmosphere. This spectacular image shows Yepun [1], the fourth 8.2-metre Unit Telescope of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility, launching a powerful yellow laser beam into the sky. The beam creates a glowing spot — an artificial star — in the Earth’s atmosphere by exciting a layer of sodium atoms at an altitude of 90 km. This Laser Guide Star (LGS) is part of the VLT’s adaptive optics system. The light coming back from the artificial star is used as a reference to control the deformable mirrors and remove the effects of atmospheric distortions, producing astronomical images almost as ...
potw1224 — Picture of the Week
Cascading Milky Way
11 June 2012: Many astronomical photographs capture stunning vistas of the skies, and this is no exception. However, there’s something unusual about this panorama. Behind ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), two streams of stars seem to cascade down like waterfalls, or perhaps rise like smoke columns to the heavens. That’s because this panorama captures the entire dome of the sky, from the zenith down to the horizon, a full 360 degrees around. The two streams are in fact a single band: the plane of our galaxy, the Milky Way, as it arcs across the sky from horizon to horizon. As it passes overhead, it appears to spread out across the whole top edge of the panorama, due to the distortion needed to squeeze the full dome of the sky into a flat, rectangular image. To understand the picture, imagine that the far left side is attached to the far right, creating a loop ...
potw1223 — Picture of the Week
Computing at ESO Through the Ages — The amazing advance of technology
4 June 2012: ESO turns fifty this year, and to celebrate this important anniversary, we are showing you glimpses into our history. Once a month during 2012, a special Then and Now comparison Picture of the Week shows how things have changed over the decades at the La Silla and Paranal Observatory sites, the ESO offices in Santiago de Chile, and the Headquarters in Garching bei München, Germany. Our pair of photographs this month show how the computing power used by ESO has changed dramatically over time. Both photographs show Austrian astronomer Rudi Albrecht in front of ESO’s computer systems, but on dates separated by decades. In the historical image, taken in 1974 in the ESO offices in Santiago, Chile, we can see Albrecht, pencil in hand, poring over code in front of a teletype. He was working on software for the Spectrum Scanner attached to the ESO 1-metre telescope [1] located at ...
potw1222 — Picture of the Week
The Southern Milky Way Above ALMA
28 May 2012: ESO Photo Ambassador Babak Tafreshi snapped this remarkable image of the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), set against the splendour of the Milky Way. The richness of the sky in this picture attests to the unsurpassed conditions for astronomy on the 5000-metre-high Chajnantor plateau in Chile’s Atacama region. This view shows the constellations of Carina (The Keel) and Vela (The Sails). The dark, wispy dust clouds of the Milky Way streak from middle top left to middle bottom right. The bright orange star in the upper left is Suhail in Vela, while the similarly orange star in the upper middle is Avior, in Carina. Of the three bright blue stars that form an “L” near these stars, the left two belong to Vela, and the right one to Carina. And exactly in the centre of the image below these stars gleams the pink glow of the Carina ...
potw1221 — Picture of the Week
Icy Penitents by Moonlight on Chajnantor
21 May 2012: Babak Tafreshi, one of the ESO Photo Ambassadors, has captured a curious phenomenon on the Chajnantor plateau, the site of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter array (ALMA). These bizarre ice and snow formations are known as penitentes (Spanish for “penitents”). They are illuminated by the light of the Moon, which is visible on the right on the photograph. On the left, higher in the sky, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds can be faintly seen, while the reddish glow of the Carina Nebula appears close to the horizon on the far left. The penitentes are natural marvels found in high-altitude regions, such as here in the Chilean Andes, typically more than about 4000 metres above sea level. They are thin spikes and blades of hardened snow or ice, which often form in clusters, with their blades pointing towards the Sun. They attain heights ranging from a few centimetres, resembling low grass, ...
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