eso0701 — Organisation Release

ESO PR Highlights in 2006

4 January 2007

Last year proved to be another exceptional year for the European organisation for ground-based astronomy. ESO should begin the New Year with two new member states: Spain (PR 05/06) and the Czech Republic (PR 52/06).

ESO PR Highlights 2006

2006 was a year of renovation and revolution in the world of planets. A new Earth-like exoplanet has been discovered using a network of telescopes from all over the world (including the Danish 1.54-m one at ESO La Silla). It is not the only child of this fruitful year: thanks to the combined use of ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) and La Silla instruments, a surprising system of twin giant exoplanets was found, and a trio of Neptune-like planets hosted by a nearby star were identified. These results open new perspectives on the search for habitable zones and on the understanding of the mechanism of planet formation. The VISIR instrument on the VLT has been providing unique information to answer this last question, by supplying a high resolution view of a planet-forming disc.

There are not only new members in the planets' register: during the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union held in Prague (Czech Republic), it was decided that Pluto is not a planet anymore but a 'dwarf planet'. Whatever its status, Pluto still has a satellite, Charon, whose radius and density have been measured more accurately by observing a rare occultation from different sites, including Cerro Paranal.

The scientific community dedicated 2006 to the great physicist James Clerk Maxwell (it was the 175th anniversary of the birth): without his electromagnetic theory of light, none of the astonishing discoveries of modern physics could have been achieved. Nowadays we can look at distant galaxies in great detail: the GIRAFFE spectrograph on the VLT revealed that galaxies 6 billion years ago had the same amount of dark matter relative to stars than nowadays, while SINFONI gave an unprecedented detailed map of a proto-disc galaxy, showing how galaxies looked like 10 billion years ago. The VLT also helped to discover a large primordial (more than 10 billion years away) 'blob', explained as the early stage formation of a galaxy.

Not only far away galaxies are rich of surprises: also our own Galaxy was the object of investigations during 2006 and its history is now less obscure. ESO's Very Large Telescope unveiled that the stellar cluster Messier 12 must have lost to our Milky Way galaxy close to one million low-mass stars. Stealing is not uncommon in astronomy: evidence of stellar vampires - star sucking off material from another - was unearthed in the globular cluster 47 Tucanae.

Still closer to home, the VLT observed Schwassmann-Wachmann 3, a comet that is breaking apart and revealed many mini-comets.

At Paranal, a fourth Auxiliary Telescope was installed for the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, and since January 2006, not only do natural stars shine: the first artificial star twinkles in the Southern Hemisphere. It does not guide the sailors (it is too faint to be seen by the unaided eye), but it conducts the eye of the present and future telescopes. And 2006 proved an important year for the future project of ESO, the Extremely Large Telescope. After approval from the ESO council, the European community can now start the final design of this telescope that will without doubt revolutionise astronomy.

ESO PR Photos 2006

2006 was without doubt an explosive year: the explosion of a supernovae of Type Ia in the enchanting Hooked Galaxy was followed from the middle of 2005 for more than a year and using observations of 17 supernovae Ia astronomers could make light on the nature of such explosions, that are likely to occur at supersonic speed. Supernovae are proved to be linked to X-ray flashes and to the more energetic gamma-ray bursts. But not all the explosions are associated with supernovae, and a new kind of explosion is indeed suggested by the observation of a new mysterious category of gamma-ray bursts.

The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) 12-m sub-millimetre telescope lived up to the ambitions of the scientists by providing access to the 'Cold Universe' with unprecedented sensitivity and image quality. As a demonstration, no less than 26 articles based on early science with APEX were published in a special issue of the research journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

This year ESO and Chile celebrated ten years of collaboration: a cooperation that led not only to breakthrough discoveries, but also to a growth of astronomy and related sciences in the South American country.

ESO published many images last year as well, including two huge ones, made with the Wide Field Imager: one, made of about 300 million pixels, shows an 'empty field', while the other, a 256 million pixel mosaic, depicts in amazing detail the Tarantula Nebula. These and other images can be accessed through the clickable map, including amazing images of galaxies and of a finally identified flying object.

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About the Release

Release No.:eso0701
Legacy ID:PR 01/07

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