Image of the Day: Milky Way from the World’s Great Southern Observatory


The view of the Mily Way from European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal. The nightlight there from the Milky Way is bright enough to cast your shadow.

The international astronomical observatories in Chile are crowned the Gemini Observatory (South) at 2,700 meters (8,858 ft) elevation on Cerro Pachón (a mountain in the Chilean Andes) and the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, a 2,635 meter (8,645 ft) high mountain in the Atacama desert.

Gemini South is approximately 800 km (500 miles) north of the epicenter and the VLT is approximately 1,370 km (850 miles) north of the epicenter. Undoubtedly both locations would have experienced some seismic activity.

But as you would expect, Chile's observatories such as the VLT have some novel anti-earthquake safety measures in place, with the entire telescope is designed to swing during an earthquake, and securing the primary mirror prevents it from rattling against the metal tubes that surround it.

In the past two years, European astronomers based here have discovered the smallest planet yet found orbiting another star. The discovery suggests that the Milky Way is full of small-mass planets and that with more time and improved instruments like NASA's Kepler satillite, they would eventually find Earth-like planets in orbits suitable for life around other stars.

“The holy grail of current exoplanet research is the detection of a rocky, Earth-like planet in the ‘habitable zone’ — a region around the host star with the right conditions for water to be liquid on a planet’s surface”, says Michel Mayor from the Geneva Observatory, who led the European team to several stunning breakthroughs.

“It is amazing to see how far we have come since we discovered the first exoplanet around a normal star in 1995 — the one around 51 Pegasi,” says Mayor. 

The astronomers are confident that they can still do better. With similar observing conditions an Earth-like planet located in the middle of the habitable zone of a red dwarf star could be detectable.

La Silla is located in the epicenter of the Atacama Desert's 5000 meter-high plateau of Chajnantor. Nearby, the European Southern Observatory's  ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) Observatory project is under construction -a giant, international observatory composed initially of 66 high-precision telescopes, operating at wavelengths of 0.3 to 9.6 mm.

Alma_2 The ALMA antennas will be electronically combined and provide astronomical observations which are equivalent to a single large telescope of tremendous size and resolution, able to probe the Universe at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths with unprecedented sensitivity and resolution, with an accuracy up to ten times better than the Hubble Space Telescope. ALMA will begin scientific observations in the second half of 2011, and should be fully operational by the end of 2012.

ALMA will be the forefront instrument for studying the cool universe – the relic radiation of the Big Bang, and the molecular gas and dust that constitute the very building blocks of stars, planetary systems, galaxies, and life itself.

In the meantime, odds are good that twin Earths with lukewarm temperatures will likely be discovered by the ESO team earthquke hazards notwithstanding.

Posted by Casey Kazan. 



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