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20. Expedition day 3: Paranal – ESO Ultra HD Expedition Work Begins
Date: 27.3.2014
Location: Cerro Paranal, Chile
Altitude: 2635 metres
Coordinates: 24°37'34.0"S 70°24'12.0"W

Hi all!

We have finally made it to Paranal. This is where our work truly begins for the ESO UltraHD Expedition!

I took this action shot of Babak as he prepared his camera to capture the glittering crimson canvas of stars and galaxies. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

We arrived yesterday at about noon local time from Santiago. After settling ourselves in at the Residencia, our accommodation while at Paranal, and relaxing for a short while, we enjoyed dinner, before we checked that our delivery with most of our equipment for the expedition had arrived.

Good news, it’s all in order! Everything is accounted for in our shipment from Garching and our work can now begin :)

This is a panorama showing the interior of the warehouse at Paranal basecamp, near the Residencia. Credit: ESO

The first night is always a welcome opportunity to get fully accustomed to the new location. It gives us a chance to scout for optimal places for shots and evaluate how shadows evolve during sunset and sunrise. This is important preliminary work that will help us to better plan our shots in the days to come.

In the evening, at about 17:00 local time, we drove up to the VLT platform to take shots of the enclosures and auxiliary telescopes during sunset, overnight and at sunrise. We split up from here and scattered ourselves across the location, with Christoph focusing on the VLT platform whilst Babak and I took shots from elsewhere — some examples of which you can see in this blog post.

The Small and Large Magellanic clouds soar high above Cerro Paranal and the VLT. Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi.

The skies above the Residencia are dotted with distant stars and illuminated by the Milky Way Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

Temperatures were cold but in the normal range of what we expected. There was an increasing amount of airglow during the first half of the night as you may be able to notice in these images.

The increasing wind speeds during the second half of the night made it a tough job to collect images, however we soldiered on and managed to capture some beautiful shots which we hope you enjoy a glimpse of in this blog post :) We were all amazed by the darkness of the Paranal site, which enabled us to revel in the glittering skies above and produce footage that we are all very satisfied with and happy to share a glimpse of with you today.

All in all, it was a great first night’s work! Today, Herbert and Christoph went to the Platform to collect Christoph’s Timelapse Bots that have been working hard overnight, before we spend another evening and night under the stars.

Eyes to the skies!


19. Expedition day 2: The Jewel on the Mountaintop
Date: 26.3.2014
Location: Paranal Observatory, Chile
Altitude: 2635 metres
Coordinates: 24°37'34.0"S 70°24'12.0"W

Hi, Babak here,

It’s been a long day of travelling. First, the morning flight from Santiago to Antofagasta and then into the rented four-wheel drives (called “trucks” here) and off to Cerro Paranal, where I am now sat writing this post. As Herbert told you yesterday, we had an early night in preparation for today’s busy travel schedule, which has been exhausting, but well worth it!

After waking early in Santiago (4:30 :S), we had the traditional early Guesthouse breakfast. The astronomers arrive and depart at all hours of the day, so breakfast is ready from midnight onwards. After a quick taxi drive at 5:20 to the airport (beating the rush hour by a comfortable margin), we boarded a plane and flew north to the city of Antofagasta. There was a lot of fog at the airport but soon after the departure the plane crossed the fog and we had an unspoiled view on the Andes mountain range. We could not see La Silla unfortunately, as it was in shadow, but as we were descending we spotted Paranal to starboard – just after sunrise, what a view!

Even though I’ve made this trip before, every time I see these magnificent mountaintops, the eagerness to photograph them in all their splendour is re-ignited. This trip is different from any other we’ve made before as my team and I intend to capture them in Ultra HD definition.

The team in Santiago airport, ready to fly north.

We picked up our two trucks at the airport after landing in Antofagasta and began our journey to Paranal. Driving through Antofagasta is a dramatic change of pace after the bustling environment of Santiago. The barren desert drive took us along Route 28, sometimes driving alongside mining trucks many times larger than us. We consumed already lots of water to adjust to the conditions. We arrived here at Paranal at around noon all in high spirits ☺

The first signs of approaching Paranal were the four Unit Telescopes of ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Glimmering like jewels in the afternoon sun, the telescopes (named Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun) guided us to our first destination, which is a technological oasis sat 2635 metres above sea level. The views from up here are breathtaking and we will take advantage of them this evening when we will take some sunset shots at this beautiful location of Cerro Paranal.

Arrival at Paranal. Smiles all around.

For now though, we have just checked into the Residencia and are about to enjoy lunch before being re-united with the equipment that we shipped here last month. There is lots of work ahead today with a safety induction and the unpacking of equipment, which we will use tonight as we take our first few shots on site.

Looking forward to sharing some shots with you soon!

All the best,

Ps. Paranal’s history is really worth reading! Start from page 199 in the free book The Jewel on the Mountaintop (downloadable as PDF) written by Claus Madsen.

18. Expedition day 1: Europe to South America
Date: 25.3.2014
Location: ESO Guesthouse, Santiago, Chile
Altitude: 520 metres
Coordinates: 33° 25' 12.29" S 70° 34' 38.26" W

Hello everyone, it’s Herbert,

I’m writing to you from a very different location today as I (and the rest of the ESO Ultra HD Expedition team of course..) have finally arrived in Santiago!

Christoph, Babak and I departed from Europe yesterday and we landed in Santiago today after a flawless journey. Christoph and I met Babak in São Paulo since he flew in from Frankfurt. Yuri lives in Chile so is meeting us here in a few hours, in time to discuss tomorrow’s shot list and enjoy our first dinner together.

It was a bit interesting to get through customs with all our high-tech equipment, but our official letters and paperwork helped us. No lost luggage :)

We’re now at the ESO Guesthouse after a taxi ride from Santiago airport. It is a fabulous place to either recover from jetlag (like us) or from weeks of consecutive observing at the observatories. No matter how much the world changes, and how insane the pace is outside, there is always tranquility here — even in the middle of bustling Santiago.

I had luck this time. The Guesthouse is full so I was put in room 004 — the Director General’s room :)

The Director General’s room, the “famous” room 004, in the ESO Guesthouse.

Maybe you want to have look yourself? Click on our Santiago Virtual Tour, which starts in the garden just a few metres from where I am writing this. I am sitting on the sofa in the living room (where Wolfgang Wild is sitting in the photo in the Virtual Tour). Mind you, we have unpacked some of our equipment so things look a lot less tidy: cameras, computers, batteries, dollies, tripods, MoCos and SSD drives.

The weather is great — the Sun always shines in Chile it seems :) The climate is warmer, the skies are a shade bluer and anticipation is at an all time high as we prepare to leave on an early morning flight to the coastal city of Antofagasta, where we will begin our relatively short drive to Paranal. We have also been drinking a great deal of water since arriving in Chile so that our bodies will become accustomed to the warm climate in no time!

Babak, Christoph and I in the ESO Guesthouse on Day 1 of the ESO Ultra HD Expedition

The real adventure begins tomorrow as we spend the day in transit to Paranal Observatory — the first of ESO’s astronomical destinations to be shot in Ultra HD quality during this expedition. Before then, we are going to get a good night’s sleep here at the ESO Guesthouse after a hearty Chilean meal (and perhaps just one glass of good Chilean red wine to make sure the jet lag does not wake us up during the night ;).

All the best from the Guesthouse,


17. Packing and Planning
Date: 21.3.2014
Location: ESO Headquarters, Garching bei München
Altitude: 508 metres
Coordinates: 48° 15' 36.90" N, 11° 40' 15.16" E

Hello, it’s Christoph here again,

With the expedition fast approaching, I’m currently at ESO Headquarters in Garching, Germany, to assist Herbert with packing. Our protective suitcases, called Peli Cases, are filled to the brim with the equipment needed to produce Ultra HD quality shots and videos of the astronomical sites in Chile. Kindly sent to us by Peli, we are packing four of these hardback cases with all sorts of technology, ranging from the previously mentioned Vixen Polarie Star Tracker — which allows us to capture the night sky whilst aligned to the planet’s poles, to Angelbird’s SSD2go PRO solid-state disks that will store the ultra HD content we produce using our 4K Canon EOS-1D C camera.

In this picture are Herbert Zodet and myself, packing our equipment in the Peli cases and preparing for the trip to Chile

It is vital that we take full advantage of the inky night sky in Chile, so not only will Yuri, Babak, Herbert and I be staying awake at night, but our equipment also needs to have power throughout the night. To ensure this, another item on our packing checklist is the Intecro XTPower MP-S23000 Powerbank Solarakku. This powerful battery is made for on-the-go excursions such as ours and has a long life with a rechargeable lithium-polymer battery. It will provide power to our camera dolly and MacBook Air computers for up to 13 hours and this capacity is supported by a multi-voltage solar charger. This battery pack is optimised for outdoor use and since we will be travelling every few days as we spend time at various ESO sites, it makes a great addition to our luggage.

Part of the equipment we are taking to Chile. Here you can see some of our Canon equipment

Now that you know a bit more about what we are taking, I’m looking forward to finally leaving for Santiago in a few more days and sharing the beautiful Ultra HD footage that we capture with this technology during our much anticipated expedition.

Until then,
- Christoph

16. Smooth Shooting
Date: 18.3.2014
Location: Dolomites, Italy
Altitude: 2750 metres
Coordinates: 46.4372 N, 11.8485 E

Hi! It’s Christoph here again.

I am just back from the Nordkette mountains and went off to the Dolomites for a filming trip until Friday (they have a good wifi at 2750 m).

It’s important for the equipment we will take on the ESO Ultra HD Expedition to be light, compact and easily portable as we travel to each of ESO’s sites, climbing to high altitudes and across varied terrain. At the same time, we really don’t want to compromise on quality in our shots. For instance, it is necessary that our cameras move smoothly whilst capturing panoramic time-lapses like this one.

You can download this video on this link. Credit: ESO/C. Malin (

To achieve time-lapses like this, we need rails for the camera to run on, so it can track smoothly between shots. We will be taking along the Stage One Dolly from Kids of all Ages, which is more portable and lighter than most comparable products. It weighs less than 4 kilogrammes (in total) and the carbon rails are so short (about 50 cm length) that the dolly easily fits in our hand luggage.

On top of the dolly, we will use the eMotimo TB3 motion control device (“MoCo” in the slang used by time-lapse photographers), connected with a motor mount. This will allow repeatable, three-axis motion control of the camera. The eMotimo TB3 is portable, strong, and lightweight, which, again makes it ideal for our needs during the expedition.

Here’s short video which shows how you can set up three-axis motion shots within minutes. Perhaps you want to have a go at taking panoramic time-lapses yourself?

All the best,
- Christoph

15. Reaching New Heights
Date: 14.3.2014
Location: ESO Headquarters, Garching bei München
Altitude: 508 metres
Coordinates: 48° 15' 36.90" N, 11° 40' 15.16" E

Hello everyone, it’s Herbert,

Our travels through the rocky contours of northern Chile will take us up as high as 5000 metres above sea level on the Chajnantor Plateau, as well as to the more moderate heights of 2400 and 2600 metres at the La Silla Observatory and Cerro Paranal .

A view of the Chajnantor Plateau from below lit by sunset. The Plateau is in Chile's Atacama Desert at an altitude of 5000 metres. In the distance can be seen the Licancabur volcano, dominating the sky line at an incredible 5920 metres above sea level.

The reason for placing telescopes at these grand heights is for the pristine astronomical viewing conditions that these locations provide. Ground-based telescopes thrive at high altitudes since the atmospheric disturbances are smaller here, giving greater clarity to their views of the cosmos. The function of the telescope in question also determines which location is best. For example, the air is very dry at 5000 metres atop the Chajnantor Plateau — so with very little water vapour in the air this is perfect for the ALMA Observatory’s submillimetre observations of the Universe.

Going high and dry — although great for telescopes — is not always an ideal place for humans or technology. As my team and I climb higher, the concentration of oxygen in the air will decrease and our bloodstreams will be less oxygen-rich. Over time we will gradually acclimatise to these extreme environments, but it takes time and special precautions. Similarly, the equipment that we carry has to function well in these conditions. Like humans, computer hard drives need air to function. Their magnetic heads “float” on a cushion of air. When the air is too thin, as at Chajnantor, the risk of a “head crash” becomes overwhelming. So we need another technology. As we capture stunning shots of ESO sites, we will be storing these on Angelbird’s SSD2go PRO portable solid-state disks (SSD). This innovative piece of technology uses an electronic interface with integrated circuit assemblies as memory. SSDs have no moving mechanical parts and are more resistant to physical shock, and run fast and silently. The disks also have highly accurate temperature sensors built in, which maintain a comfortable temperature of operation as we venture up high and capture the majesty of telescope technology in Ultra HD.

All the best,
- Herbert

14. Treasures of the Southern Sky
Date: 11.3.2014
Location: Saarlouis, Germany
Altitude: 342 metres
Coordinates: 49° 19′ 0″ N, 6° 45′ 0″ E

Greetings! It’s Babak again.

I’d like to give you a brief glimpse into some of the wonders of the southern sky. We are lucky enough to have some of the sky’s most amazing objects and many cannot be seen from northern latitudes. The Chilean Atacama Desert provides us with the most stunning conditions imaginable to bring out the details of these objects.

Most prominent are the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds — irregular dwarf galaxies close to our own galaxy, the Milky Way, as seen here in the starry background with Yepun, the fourth 8.2-metre Unit Telescope of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility.

Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (

There is also the Carina Nebula, glowing intensely red in the middle of this next image. This lies in the constellation of Carina (The Keel), around 7500 light-years from Earth.

Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi (

The Carina Nebula is shown here in all its glory in the VLT’s most detailed infrared image.

This broad image of the Carina Nebula, a region of massive star formation in the southern skies, was taken in infrared light using the HAWK-I camera on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Many previously hidden features, scattered across a spectacular celestial landscape of gas, dust and young stars, have emerged. . Credit: ESO/T. Preibisch

Below the Carina Nebula, you can make a wish upon a star in the star cluster NGC 3532. Through a telescope, the young stars in this open cluster can appear like a handful of shiny coins at the bottom of a wishing well. It has even been nicknamed the Wishing Well Cluster by some.

Further to the right, we find the Lambda Centauri Nebula (IC 2944), a cloud of glowing hydrogen and newborn stars which is sometimes nicknamed the Running Chicken Nebula.

This image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope shows the Running Chicken Nebula, a cloud of gas and newborn stars that lies around 6500 light-years away from us in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). Officially called IC 2944, or the Lambda Centauri Nebula, its strange nickname comes from the bird-like shape of its brightest region. The star Lambda Centauri itself lies just outside the field of view. Credit: ESO

Above this nebula and slightly to the left we find the Southern Pleiades (IC 2602), an open cluster of stars which looks similar to its northern namesake.

Clear skies,


P.S. “Treasures of the Southern Sky” is available from Springer and the ESOshop, which celebrates the remarkable beauty and rich variety of the southern sky in words and with world-class imagery.

13. Astronomically Aligned
Date: 7.3.2014
Location: Innsbruck, Austria
Altitude: 574 metres
Coordinates: 47° 16’ 0” N, 11° 23’ 0” E

Hi Christoph here,

ESO’s sites in Chile provide some of the best and clearest night skies in the world. We always look forward to these stunning conditions, which offer us some of the very best astronomical images. But the view of the night sky from Chile is very different to that of the northern hemisphere.

In Chile, you are treated to some of the treasures of the Southern sky that can’t be seen from northern latitudes — such as the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds, as seen in this beautiful image I took of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimetre Array (ALMA).

ALMA showing the telescope’s antennas under a breathtaking starry night sky. This is a still frame taken from one of Christoph’s painstakingly created timelapse videos of ALMA, which are also available (see ann12099). Credit: ESO/C.Malin

Some astrophotographers use their camera on a fixed tripod for short exposures when imaging the night sky. You tend to be limited to about 15–30 seconds before the stars are seen to trail. Others who are aiming for faint objects use tracking mounts, which track the motion of the night sky for longer exposures. Those mounts could be anything from large equatorial mounts designed for large telescopes to small portable star trackers.

In the southern hemisphere there is no bright pole star, which makes things a little more tricky when tracking the stars. We’ll be taking along the Vixen Polarie star tracker — a very compact, light-weight mount platform which allows you to capture the night sky, aligning to the pole very easily. You can use this in both northern and southern hemispheres and it is able to function in most weather conditions.

In this panoramic photograph, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds — satellite galaxies of our own — glow brightly on the left, while
the VLT’s Unit Telescope 1 stands vigil on the right. Credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

We look forward to bringing you the southern sky in the even more stunning quality of Ultra High Definition.

All the best,

- Christoph

12. An Introduction to: ALMA
Date: 4.3.2014
Location: Las Campanas Observatory, Atacama Region, Chile
Altitude: 2380 metres
Coordinates: 29° 00’ 52.56” S, 70 41’ 33.36” °W

Hi, Yuri here,

I’d like introduce you to the last of the three ESO sites that we will visit: The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) located high on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes, 5000 metres above sea level.

Antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two companion galaxies to our the Milky Way galaxy, can be seen as bright smudges in the night sky, in the centre of the photograph. Credit: ESO/C. Malin

ALMA is an exciting international partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile — simply the largest astronomical project in existence.

ALMA comprises 66 high-precision antennas (such as those shown above), spread over distances of up to 16 kilometres. It is one of the highest astronomical observatory sites on Earth. The array will explore the enigmatic cold Universe at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths, a largely unmapped part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Check out this short movie on ALMA to see how astronomers will go In Search for Our Cosmic Origins:

ESO have recently announced the ALMA Transporter Game — a simple new multi-player game called Chajnantor: Race Against Time? Now you can be at the controls of a transporter and explore the top of the Chajnantor Plateau! Try it out, and you can see where we will be very shortly.

Until next time,

Ps. Take a trip to ALMA here.

11. An Introduction to: Paranal
Date: 28.2.2014
Location: Saarlouis, Germany
Altitude: 342 metres
Coordinates: 49° 19′ 0″ N, 6° 45′ 0″ E

Hello everybody, it’s Babak!

This is the second of a series of blog posts on the Chilean sites that we will be visiting next month, and today I’d like to introduce: Paranal and the Very Large Telescope (VLT).

La Silla is home to the 3.58-metre New Technology Telescope, the first telescope to use a computer-controlled main mirror — which was then revolutionary in its design. The technology behind this, developed by ESO, and known as adaptive optics, paved the way for major modern telescopes and is now used by ESO’s Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal and will be used by the Extremely Large Telescope.

The VLT is an oasis of optical imaging found atop the sandy dunes of Cerro Paranal, set high in the Andes at 2635 metres above sea level.

Paranal has 330 clear nights a year, so the VLT has plenty of time to look deep into the glittering cosmos. The telescope’s adaptive optics system, which compensates for the blurring effect of the atmosphere, uses a laser beam to create an artificial star as a reference, so that the system can create the crystal-clear images we are familiar with.

As the flagship facility for European ground-based astronomy, the VLT is the most productive individual ground-based facility in the world. Its results lead to the publication of on average of more than one peer-reviewed scientific paper per day — an impressive feat!

The VLT hotel, the Residencia, provides an oasis for the astronomers and staff and is an award-winning building. It was also featured as a backdrop for part of the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace!

That’s all for now. I won’t give away too much about the wonder that is Paranal, you’ll just have to wait a few more weeks until we’ll deliver it to you in Ultra HD!

Clear skies,

Ps. Also Paranal has a virtual tour if you want to experience it yourself.


Older blog entries < 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 > Newer blog entries


Here we will share our thoughts as we embark our revolutionary Ultra HD expedition, explain some of the background of the trip and then take you on our journey to each of ESO’s sites as we capture time-lapses, stills, videos, panoramas in Ultra HD and time-lapses in planetarium fulldome format. We aim to share what is set to be an amazing opportunity throughout our 17-day adventure. We very much hope you can feel you are with us as we provide you with such high-quality resolution at the world’s best sites for astronomy.




Read more about the Expedition in the PDF brochure (26.7 MB)