Picture of the Week

25 June 2012

Mars, 2099?

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 ESA team recently tested the self-steering Seeker rover, as described in ann12048.

This image was taken at twilight, looking southwest towards the VLT, from the VISTA survey telescope on an adjacent peak. To the west lies the Pacific Ocean, only about 12 kilometres from Paranal. Rising up from the Paranal summit, the Milky Way can be seen, bearing the unmistakable mark of the southern sky — the asterism of the Southern Cross.

At Paranal, the skies can be so clear and dark on moonless nights, that the light from the Milky Way alone is enough to cast shadows. This is why ESO chose the site for the VLT, and why the observatory benefits from some of the best observing conditions in the world.

Julien Girard is an ESO astronomer based in Chile, who works at the VLT. He submitted this photograph to the Your ESO Pictures Flickr group. The Flickr group is regularly reviewed and the best photos are selected to be featured in our popular Picture of the Week series, or in our gallery. In 2012, as part of ESO’s 50th anniversary year, we are also welcoming your historical ESO-related images.

Links


18 June 2012

Yepun’s Laser and the Magellanic Clouds

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 sharp as if the telescope were in space.

Yepun’s laser is not the only thing glowing brightly in the sky. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds can be seen, to the left and to the right of the laser beam, respectively. These nearby irregular dwarf galaxies are conspicuous objects in the southern hemisphere, and can be easily observed with the unaided eye. The prominent bright star to the left of the Large Magellanic Cloud is Canopus, the brightest star in the constellation Carina (The Keel), while the one towards the top-right of the image is Achernar, the brightest in the constellation Eridanus (The River).

This image was taken by Babak Tafreshi, an ESO Photo Ambassador.

Notes

[1] The VLT’s four Unit Telescopes are named after celestial objects in the indigenous Mapuche language, Mapudungun. The Unit Telescopes (UTs) are named: Antu (UT1, the Sun); Kueyen (UT2, the Moon); Melipal (UT3, the Southern Cross); and Yepun (UT4, Venus).

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11 June 2012

Cascading Milky Way

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 around you, and that the top edge is drawn together to a single point overhead. Thus, it encompasses the full dome of the sky above you.

On the left side of the image, the silhouette of the observatory’s windsock on its pole can be seen above the building. To the left of the windsock is the bright smudge of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring galaxy of the Milky Way. To the right, in the plane of the Milky Way, is the reddish glow of the Carina Nebula. Above that is the darkness of the Coalsack Nebula, next to the Southern Cross, and slightly higher still are the two bright stars of Alpha and Beta Centauri. The four tall buildings in the image house the 8.2-metre-diameter Unit Telescopes (UTs) of the VLT. Between the two UTs on the right is the smaller building of the VLT Survey Telescope. On the right of the image, the planet Venus glows just above the horizon.

This panorama, which shows not only the VLT on the mountaintop of Cerro Paranal, but also the beautiful sky that the observatory studies, was created by ESO Photo Ambassador Serge Brunier. Just as the VLT’s state-of-the-art technology expands our view of the Universe, Serge has used the most advanced photographic techniques to capture an entire hemisphere of the sky in one image — far more than our eyes could see in a single view.

Links


28 May 2012

The Southern Milky Way Above ALMA

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 Nebula (eso1208).

ESO, the European partner in ALMA, is providing 25 of the 66 antennas that will make up the completed telescope. The two antennas closest to the camera, on which the careful viewer can find the markings “DA-43” and “DA-41”, are examples of these European antennas. Construction of the full ALMA array will be completed in 2013, but the telescope is already making scientific observations with a partial array of antennas.

Babak Tafreshi is founder of The World At Night, a programme to create and exhibit a collection of stunning photographs and time-lapse videos of the world’s most beautiful and historic sites against a night-time backdrop of stars, planets and celestial events.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

 

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21 May 2012

Icy Penitents by Moonlight on Chajnantor

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, up to five metres, giving an impression of an ice forest in the middle of the desert.

The precise details of the mechanism that forms the penitentes are still not completely understood. For many years, people of the Andes believed the penitentes to be the result of strong winds prevalent in the Andes mountains. However, the strong winds have only a limited role in shaping these icy pinnacles. Nowadays, it is believed that they are the product of a combination of physical phenomena.

The process begins with sunlight shining on the surface of the snow. Due to the very dry conditions in these desert regions, the ice sublimes rather than melts — it goes from solid to gas without melting and passing through a liquid water phase. Surface depressions in the snow trap reflected light, leading to more sublimation and deeper troughs. Within these troughs, increased temperature and humidity means that melting can occur. This positive feedback accelerates the growth of the characteristic structure of the penitentes.

These icy statues are named after the spiked hats of the nazarenos, members of a brotherhood that participates in Easter processions around the world. It is not hard to picture them as an assembly of icy monks, congregating in the moonlight.

The image was taken by the side of the road that leads to ALMA. The observatory, which started Early Science operations on 30 September 2011, will eventually consist of 66 high-precision antennas operating together as a single giant telescope.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

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14 May 2012

Getting the VLT Ready for Even Sharper Images

This 360 degree panorama shows one of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) Unit Telescopes (UT4) whilst it was recently briefly held prisoner by ESO’s engineers. It was surrounded by a temporary cage of scaffolding as part of the preparations for the new Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF). This project will convert UT4 into a fully adaptive telescope. The AOF will correct for the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere and will allow much sharper images to be achieved with the HAWK-I and MUSE instruments.

Many new components are being added to UT4 as part of the AOF. Among these is the deformable secondary mirror (DSM):  a thin-shell mirror, 1.1 metres in diameter, but just 2 millimetres thick. This mirror is thin enough to be easily deformed by more than a thousand actuators, up to a thousand times per second in order to counteract the atmosphere’s distortions. The DSM is the largest adaptive mirror manufactured to date (ann12015). Another vital element is the four Laser Guide Star Facility (4LGSF) — four special telescopes that fire laser beams high into the atmosphere to create artificial stars [1] (ann12012). Finally, the GRAAL and GALACSI adaptive optics modules will be responsible for analysing the light coming back from the laser guide stars.

This picture shows an ESO engineer supervising the work performed on UT4. To allow full access to the telescope, the cell of the primary mirror has been temporarily removed. Cables and pipes have also been removed and new ones have been installed. Mounting brackets have been added in preparation for the installation of the 4LGSF electronic cabinets and launch telescopes.

Notes

[1] The laser beams excite a layer of sodium atoms at an altitude of 90 kilometres in the atmosphere, making them glow as artificial stars.


30 April 2012

Sun, Moon and Telescopes above the Desert

The otherworldly beauty of Chile’s Atacama Desert, home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), stretches to the horizon in this panorama. On Cerro Paranal, the highest peak in the centre of this image, are the four giant Unit Telescopes of the VLT, each of which has a mirror with a diameter of 8.2 metres. On the peak to the left of Cerro Paranal is the VISTA survey telescope. This 4.1-metre telescope surveys broad swathes of the heavens, searching for interesting targets which the VLT, as well as other telescopes on the ground and in space, will study in greater detail.

This region offers some of the best conditions for viewing the night sky found anywhere on our planet. On the right of this 360-degree panorama, the Sun is setting over the Pacific Ocean, throwing long shadows across the mountainscape. On the left, the Moon gleams in the sky. Soon, the night’s observations will begin.

This wonderful panorama was made by Serge Brunier, an ESO Photo Ambassador. It is one of many awe-inspiring images in which he captures ESO’s observatories, their beautiful locations, and the splendour of the skies above them.

Links


23 April 2012

The Moon and the Arc of the Milky Way

ESO Photo Ambassador Stéphane Guisard captured this astounding panorama from the site of ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, in the Chilean Andes. The 5000-metre-high and extremely dry Chajnantor plateau offers the perfect place for this state-of-the-art telescope, which studies the Universe in millimetre- and submillimetre-wavelength light.

Numerous giant antennas dominate the centre of the image. When ALMA is complete, it will have a total of 54 of these 12-metre-diameter dishes. Above the array, the arc of the Milky Way serves as a resplendent backdrop. When the panorama was taken, the Moon was lying close to the centre of the Milky Way in the sky, its light bathing the antennas in an eerie night-time glow. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the biggest of the Milky Way's dwarf satellite galaxies, appear as two luminous smudges in the sky on the left. A particularly bright meteor streak gleams near the Small Magellanic Cloud.

On the right, some of ALMA’s smaller 7-metre antennas — twelve of which will be used to form the Atacama Compact Array — can be seen. Still further on the right shine the lights of the Array Operations Site Technical Building. And finally, looming behind this building is the dark, mountainous peak of Cerro Chajnantor.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

Links


16 April 2012

APEX Stands Sentry on Chajnantor

The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope looks skyward during a bright, moonlit night on Chajnantor, one of the highest and driest observatory sites in the world. Astronomical treasures fill the sky above the telescope, a testament to the excellent conditions offered by this site in Chile’s Atacama region.

On the left shine the stars that make up the tail of the constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion). The scorpion’s “stinger” is represented by the two bright stars that are particularly close to each other. Reaching across the sky and looking like a band of faint, glowing clouds is the plane of the Milky Way.

Between Scorpius and the next constellation to the right, Sagittarius (The Archer), which looms over APEX’s dish, a sparkling cluster of stars can be clearly seen. This is the open cluster Messier 7, also known as Ptolemy’s Cluster. Below Messier 7 and slightly to the right is the Butterfly Cluster, Messier 6. Further to the right, just above the edge of APEX’s dish, is a faint cloud which looks like a bright smudge. This is the famous Lagoon Nebula (see eso0936 for a closer view).

With a primary dish diameter of 12 metres, APEX is the largest single-dish submillimetre-wavelength telescope operating in the southern hemisphere. As the telescope’s name suggests, it is blazing a trail for the biggest submillimetre observatory in the world, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which will be completed in 2013 (eso1137). APEX will share space with the 66 antennas of ALMA on the 5000-metre-high Chajnantor plateau in Chile. The APEX telescope is based on a prototype antenna constructed for the ALMA project, and it will find many targets that ALMA will be able to study in great detail.

ESO Photo Ambassador Babak Tafreshi made this panorama using a telephoto lens. Babak is also the founder of The World At Night, a programme to create and exhibit a collection of stunning photographs and time-lapse videos of the world’s most beautiful and historic sites against a nighttime backdrop of stars, planets and celestial events.

More information

APEX is a collaboration between the Max-Planck-Institut für Radioastronomie (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO), and ESO, with operations of the telescope entrusted to ESO.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

Links

 

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9 April 2012

All Around Chajnantor — A 360-degree panorama

Although Cerro Chico reaches the remarkable altitude of 5300 metres above sea level, it is only a small mountain in the majestic landscape of the Andean plateaux. Indeed, its own name means simply “small mountain” in Spanish. However, due to its position on the plateau of Chajnantor, the top of Cerro Chico offers an excellent and relatively easy-to-reach vantage point from which to enjoy this stunning view.

This 360 degree panorama picture is centred on the northeast, where the highest volcanoes — most of them above 5500 metres — are seen. In the centre is Cerro Chajnantor itself. To the right, on the plateau, is the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope with Cerro Chascon behind it.  Further to the right, to the southeast, the Chajnantor plateau is almost fully visible. In addition to the APEX telescope, three Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) antennas can be seen, on the right. Many more have been added since this panorama was taken.

On the left of Cerro Chajnantor is Cerro Toco. Further to the left, in the northwest, we can see the distinctive conical shape of Licancabur volcano.

On the Chajnantor plateau, at 5000 metres altitude, the air is so thin and dry that it seems never to fill one’s lungs. Thanks to these extreme conditions, the millimetre and submillimetre radiation coming from the rest of the Universe can pass through what remains of the Earth’s atmosphere above the site, and can be detected from the ground with suitably sensitive telescopes such as ALMA and APEX.

APEX is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) and ESO. The telescope is operated by ESO.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

Links


26 March 2012

Wish You Were Here?

French photographer Serge Brunier — one of ESO’s Photo Ambassadors — has created this seamless 360-degree panorama of the Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama Desert, where the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is under construction.

The panorama projection has slightly warped the shapes of the ALMA antennas, but it still gives a sense of what it would be like to stand in the middle of this impressive new observatory. The 360 degree panorama view also demonstrates the complete isolation of the Chajnantor plateau; at an altitude of 5000 metres, the backdrop is almost featureless, except for a few mountain peaks and hilltops.

Although constructing such an ambitious telescope project in a remote and harsh environment is challenging, the high altitude location is perfect for submillimetre astronomy.  That’s because water vapour in the atmosphere absorbs this type of radiation, but the air is much drier at high altitude sites such as Chajnantor.

ALMA started its first scientific observations on 30 September 2011 with a partial array of antennas. When the observatory is completed, the impressive sight of fifty 12-metre antennas — as well as a smaller array of four 12-metre and twelve 7-metre antennas, known as the Atacama Compact Array (ACA) — will make the isolated landscape seem slightly less empty. In the meantime, photographs like this one are documenting the progress of a new world-class telescope facility.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

Links


19 March 2012

The VLT goes lion hunting

The Very Large Telescope has captured another member of the Leo I group of galaxies, in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). The galaxy Messier 95 stands boldly face-on, offering an ideal view of its spiral structure. The spiral arms form an almost perfect circle around the galactic centre before they spread out, creating a mane-like effect of which any lion would be proud.

Another, perhaps even more striking, feature of Messier 95 is its blazing golden core. It contains a nuclear star-forming ring, almost 2000 light-years across, where a large proportion of the galaxy’s star formation takes place. This phenomenon occurs mostly in barred spiral galaxies such as Messier 95 and our home, the Milky Way.

In the Leo I group, Messier 95 is outshone by its brother Messier 96 (see potw1143). Messier 96 is in fact the brightest member of the group and — as “leader of the pride” — also gives Leo I its alternative name of the M 96 group. Nevertheless, Messier 95 also makes for a spectacular image.

Stop press! By coincidence Messier 95 is the host of a probable supernova that was first spotted on 17 March 2012. Discovery details are here. And as another coincidence both supernova and galaxy are currently very close to the brilliant planet Mars amongst the stars of Leo. Please note that the observations used to make this Picture of the Week were taken before the supernova occurred, and therefore the supernova itself does not appear in this image.


12 March 2012

A Dusting of Snow in the Atacama Desert

The domes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope sit atop Cerro Paranal, basking in the sunlight of another glorious cloudless day. But something is different about this picture: a fine layer of snow has settled across the desert landscape. This isn’t something you see every day: quite the opposite in fact, as the Atacama Desert gets almost no precipitation.

Several factors contribute to the dry conditions in the Atacama. The Andes mountain range blocks rain from the east, and the Chilean Coast Range from the west. The cold offshore Humboldt current in the Pacific Ocean creates a coastal inversion layer of cool air, which prevents rain clouds from developing. A region of high pressure in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean creates circulating winds, forming an anticyclone, which also helps to keep the climate of the Atacama dry. Thanks to all these factors, the region is widely regarded as the driest place on Earth!

At Paranal, the precipitation levels are usually just a few millimetres per year, with the humidity often dropping below 10%, and temperatures ranging from -8 to 25 degrees Celsius. The dry conditions in the Atacama Desert are a major reason why ESO chose it, and Cerro Paranal, to host the Very Large Telescope. While the very occasional snowfall may temporarily disrupt the dry conditions here, it does at least produce unusual views of rare beauty.

This photograph was taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Stéphane Guisard on 1 August 2011.

Links


27 February 2012

Spinning into Action

The dynamism of ESO's Very Large Telescope in operation is wonderfully encapsulated in this unusual photograph, taken just after sunset at the moment Unit Telescope 1 starts work. An extended exposure time of 26 seconds has allowed ESO Photo Ambassador Gerhard Hüdepohl to record the movement of the dome, looking out through the opening from within, as the system swings into action. The rotating walls of the dome look like an ethereal swirl through which a slice of the Atacama Desert can be glimpsed, while the crisp dusk sky provides a splash of cool blue.

The telescope structure, seen stationary in the centre of the image, houses a mirror 8.2 metres in diameter, designed to collect light from the far reaches of our Universe. The dome itself is also an engineering marvel, moving with extreme precision and allowing for careful temperature control lest warm air currents disrupt observations.

Links


20 February 2012

Boldly going up Cerro Paranal

ESO’s Paranal Observatory facilities, such as the Residencia, give people who work at the site a welcome shelter from the surrounding inhospitable environment. In spite of that, they also offer interesting options for those who wish to enjoy the stark and silent beauty of the Atacama Desert. See this stunning panorama!

Among these is the Star Track, a walking path which connects the Residencia with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) platform, on the 2600-metre summit of Cerro Paranal. Built in 2001, the Star Track covers about two kilometres in distance and a difference in height of 200 metres. The last part of the track snakes around the west side of the mountain, offering incomparable views.

This 360 degree panoramic picture is centred facing north, so the right and left edges of the picture correspond to the south. To the north, the VLT control room and part of one of the Unit Telescope enclosures can just be seen peeking over a local bump in the terrain that hides most of the Paranal summit. To the west, clouds cover the Pacific Ocean, only 12 kilometres away. To the east, the facade and dome of the Residencia can be seen in the distance.

Links


13 February 2012

The Heart of the Milky Way, for Valentine’s Day

There is a lot to love about astronomy, and — in time for Valentine's Day — photographer Julien Girard offers a "heartfelt” example in this image. A bright pink symbol of love appears to float ethereally against the backdrop of the night sky over ESO's Paranal Observatory in northern Chile. Girard drew the heart in the air by shining a tiny flashlight keychain at the camera during a 25-second exposure with a tripod.

The central region of the Milky Way appears in the middle of the heart, as the plane of our galaxy stretches across the image. The stars of the constellation of Corona Australis (The Southern Crown) form a glittering arc of jewels at the top of the heart's left lobe. The diffuse glow to the left of the heart's lowest point is zodiacal light, caused by the scattering of light from the Sun by dust particles in the Solar System.

On the far right horizon, the 8.2-metre telescopes of the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility stand out in silhouette atop Cerro Paranal. The lights of a car driving down from the observatory platform can be seen just to the left of the telescopes.

Julien Girard is an ESO astronomer based in Chile, who works at the VLT. He is the instrument scientist for the NACO adaptive optics instrument on the VLT’s Unit Telescope 4. He submitted this photograph to the Your ESO Pictures Flickr group, from where it was picked out as an ESO Picture of the Week.

Links


30 January 2012

A Shadow at Sunrise

In this photograph, taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Gianluca Lombardi, the Sun is rising and bathing the Chilean Atacama Desert in a familiar soft reddish glow. But this image, from 13 July 2011, has also captured something out of the ordinary: a dark shadow lurking on the horizon.

Gianluca took this photograph from Cerro Armazones, looking west. Armazones is the future home of the world’s biggest eye on the sky: the upcoming European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). The Sun rose behind Gianluca in just the right place to cast a daunting shadow of the 3060-metre-high mountain onto the Earth’s atmosphere in the distance. The shadow can be seen reaching over the vast desert landscape, and up across the horizon on the left side of the image.

The bright summit visible on the right of the image is Cerro Paranal, at an altitude of 2600 metres. It is only 20 kilometres from Cerro Armazones, and is the home of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Both sites have exceptional astronomical observing conditions. To its right is the adjacent peak where the VISTA survey telescope is located and to its left, on the horizon, are the Paranal Observatory’s basecamp and Residencia.

The white road winding across the bottom-left corner of the photograph is the route to the summit of Cerro Armazones.

Links

  • This image, as well as many more stunning shots from Gianluca Lombardi, can be found on his Flickr photostream.
  • Find out more about the ESO Photo Ambassadors here.
  • Find out more about Cerro Armazones and the E-ELT here.

23 January 2012

Barred Spiral Galaxy Swirls in the Night Sky

This image shows the swirling shape of galaxy NGC 2217, in the constellation of Canis Major (The Great Dog). In the central region of the galaxy is a distinctive bar of stars within an oval ring. Further out, a set of tightly wound spiral arms almost form a circular ring around the galaxy. NGC 2217 is therefore classified as a barred spiral galaxy, and its circular appearance indicates that we see it nearly face-on.

The outer spiral arms have a bluish colour, indicating the presence of hot, luminous, young stars, born out of clouds of interstellar gas. The central bulge and bar are yellower in appearance, due to the presence of older stars. Dark streaks can also be seen in places against the galaxy’s arms and central bulge, where lanes of cosmic dust block out some of the starlight.

The majority of spiral galaxies in the local Universe — including our own Milky Way — are thought to have a bar of some kind, and these structures play an important role in the development of a galaxy. They can, for example, funnel gas towards the centre of the galaxy, helping to feed a central black hole, or to form new stars.


16 January 2012

ALMA’s Grand Antennas

Workers on the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) project stand next to three of the telescope’s antennas. This photograph gives a real sense of the scale of the giant dishes, whose 12-metre diameters are about seven times the average human height. When completed, ALMA will consist of 66 high-precision antennas, 54 of them with 12-metre dishes as seen in this image, and 12 more compact ones with diameters of 7 metres. The yellow 28-wheel transporter vehicle, which has to be powerful enough to carry the 100-tonne antennas, is built on a similarly giant scale.

This photograph was taken at the 2900-metre-high ALMA Operations Support Facility in the foothills of the Chilean Andes, where the antennas are assembled and tested. On the left is one of the European ALMA antennas, pointing at the horizon. Behind it is one of the antennas provided to the project by Japan, while on the right, on the transporter vehicle and pointing upwards, is another European antenna. This is the first European antenna starting its journey up to the Array Operations Site on the Chajnantor plateau, photographed in July 2011 (see eso1127). Since this photograph was taken, the antennas, and others like them, have been put into operation on Chajnantor as ALMA has made its first scientific observations (see eso1137). ALMA is designed to study the cool Universe — the relic radiation of the Big Bang and the molecular gas and dust from which stars, planets and galaxies originate.

ALMA, an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), and on behalf of East Asia by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

Twenty-five European ALMA antennas are being provided by ESO through a contract with the European AEM Consortium. ALMA will also have 25 antennas provided by North America, and 16 by East Asia.


9 January 2012

Mapping Dark Matter in Galaxies

The picture is part of the COMBO-17 survey (Classifying Objects by Medium-Band Observations in 17 Filters), a project dedicated to recording detailed images of small patches of the sky through filters of 17 different colours. The area covered in this image is only about the size of the full Moon, but thousands of galaxies can be identified just within this small region.

The image was taken with an exposure time of almost seven hours, which allowed the camera to capture the light from very faint and distant objects, as well as those that are closer to us. Galaxies with clear and regular structures, such as the spiral specimen viewed edge-on near the upper left corner, are only up to a few billion light-years away. The fainter, fuzzier objects are so far away that it has taken nine or ten billion years for their light to reach us.

The COMBO-17 survey is a powerful tool for studying the distribution of dark matter in galaxies. Dark matter is a mysterious substance that does not emit or absorb light and can only be detected by its gravitational pull on other objects. Some of the closer galaxies pictured act as lenses that distort the light coming from more distant galaxies placed along the same line of sight. By measuring this distortion, an effect known as gravitational lensing, astronomers are able to understand how dark matter is distributed in the objects that act as lenses.

The distortion is weak and, therefore, almost imperceptible to the human eye. However, because surveying the sky with 17 filters allows extremely precise distance measurements, it is possible to determine if two galaxies that appear to lie close to each other are actually at very different distances from the Earth. After identifying the galactic lensing systems, the distortion can be measured by averaging over thousands of galaxies. With more than 4000 galactic lenses identified, this COMBO-17 survey is an ideal method to help astronomers to understand the dark matter better.

This image was taken with three of the 17 filters from the project: B (blue), V (green), and R (red). Data through an additional near-infrared filter was also used. 

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