Category Archives: ESO

ESO’s New Gear


The SPHERE instrument was recently installed on the VLT at ESO’s Paranal Observatory. The Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch instrument or SPHERE for short was installed on Unit Telescope 3 of the VLT.

SPHERE is a very sophisticated instrument designed to spot exo-planets by direct imaging. SHPERE will have the ability to block out the central part of a given star to reduce its contribution. To make this very basic, the light coming from stars (including our sun) is not polarized but when that light is reflected off an exo-planet it becomes at least partially polarized and SHPERE can pick out the polarized signal. For a bit more detailed explanation look here.

From ESO:
Some of the sharpest images ever made with ESO’s Very Large Telescope have for the first time revealed what appears to be an ageing star in the early stages of forming a butterfly-like planetary nebula. The observations of the red giant star L2 Puppis from the ZIMPOL mode of the newly installed SPHERE instrument are combined here with infrared data from NACO, also on the VLT, which shows a dust loop deployed on the far side of the upper part of the nebula. The dying stages of the lives of stars continue to pose many riddles for astronomers.

ESO/P. Kervella

The Boomerang Nebula


This image is the Boomerang Nebula, a product of ALMA and Hubble. The Boomerang is 5,000 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus. Click the image above to see the Hubble image without the ALMA data, you will also see why it also has the name of the Bow Tie Nebula.

The Boomerang is a protoplanetary nebula, a confusing term because it does not mean it is forming planets, it’s between the (asymptotic) giant phase and the planetary nebula phase. The cool thing about the Boomerang is not just cool it is cold. It is the coldest place we know of, 1 degree Kelvin and that’s -272.15 C / -457.87 F, the atoms are just barely moving!

I also can’t help thinking I saw an episode of Star Trek with a creature that looks a lot like the ALMA addition.

Image: Bill Saxton; NRAO/AUI/NSF; NASA/Hubble; Raghvendra Sahai

The Medusa


Astronomers used the ESO’s Very large Telescope in Chile took this “most detailed” image of the Medusa Nebula.

The colorful nebula cloud is from the the central star that has puffed off its outer layers, just like our Sun will do far in the future.

This nebula is off the “knee” of Pollux in the Gemini constellation. The ESO team put out a wide-field view that is amazingly good and more inline with what you would see in a telescope although way-way better of course. (Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2) It in my opinion pretty hard to see, at least it was for me and my scope.

Want a desktop of this image and much higher resolution images in general? Go here to visit the ESO page.

A Cosmic Gem

The diamond ring look of planetary nebula Abell 33. Click for larger. Credit: ESO

The ESO’s Very Large Telescope in Chili gives is the nice look at the Planetary Nebula Abell 33.

Abell 33 is located in the constellation Hydra. You can look around the region with The Microsoft Research Worldwide Telescope – enjoy!

The description from the ESO is below, click here to look at and download a variety of desktop sized images too:

Most stars with masses similar to that of our Sun will end their lives as white dwarfs — small, very dense, and hot bodies that slowly cool down over billions of years. On the way to this final phase of their lives the stars throw their atmospheres out into the space and create planetary nebulae, colourful glowing clouds of gas surrounding the small, bright stellar relics.

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Rosetta’s Goal in Sight

Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as observed on Februaray 28th, 2014, with the Very Large Telescope.  Left: In order to make the comet visible, the scientists superposed several exposures. The images were shifted to compensate for the comet's motion. The stars appear as broadly smudged lines.  Right: Subtracting the starry backgrouns reveals the comet. Caption and Image © MPS/ESO
Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko as observed on Februaray 28th, 2014, with the Very Large Telescope.
Left: In order to make the comet visible, the scientists superposed several exposures. The images were shifted to compensate for the comet’s motion. The stars appear as broadly smudged lines.
Right: Subtracting the starry backgrouns reveals the comet.
Caption and Image © MPS/ESO

We can now see Rosetta’s goal, comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko thanks to researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and the European Southern Observatory. The comet disappeared behind the sun last October and it is just now out of the glare enough to be seen.

They took the image above with ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Actually the image is several exposures stacked together. Think of it is adding all the images together to bring out the features. 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is small, around 3 x 5 km and it is about 740 million km / 460 million miles so it is very faint.

The new image suggests that 67P is beginning to emit gas and dust at a relatively large distance from the Sun – Colin Snodgrass from the MPS

The comet will become more visible to researchers as it gets closer.

Read more at the Max Planck Institute.

Watching Gaia

ESA’s Gaia satellite as seen with the Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO / ESA

The Gaia satellite is 1.5 million km away and is orbiting a spot in space known as L2. The spot,  L2 is a Lagrange point, think of it as a gravity balance point and makes a nice parking spot.  ESA has a more in depth explanation of Lagrange points..

ESA can actually keep tabs on Gaia visually. I think this is just amazing. Using the Very Large Telescope at the European Southern Observatory in Chile Gaia actually can be seen. It’s a very small satellite very far away, over a million times fainter than can be see with the human eye.

From the ESA caption:

To measure Gaia’s position in the sky, a network of small and medium telescopes are monitoring the spacecraft on a daily basis. This information is being fed into the orbit reconstruction being performed at ESA’s Space Operations Centre, yielding an accuracy of 150 m on Gaia’s position and of 2.5 mm/s on its motion.

These two images, taken about 6.5 minutes apart on 23 January, are the result of a close collaboration between ESA and the European Southern Observatory to observe Gaia.

Read the full ESA caption here.

Rosetta’s Goal

67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from the ESO on 05 Oct 2013. ESO / C. Snodgrass (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, Germany)

Here is an image of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken on 05 Oct 2013. This is the comet ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft is destined to orbit. As far as I know this is the latest image of the comet.

The image was taken by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. We can see the comet with and without the background of stars.

The comet was about 500,000 km from Earth and heading behind the Sun from our perspective in its six and a half year orbit at the time. If you have about 15 minutes or so, I’d like to encourage you to visit ESA’s “Where is Rosetta“. This was fantastic look at Rosetta’s journey and gives a nice perspective into how much planning goes into a mission like this.

Partial screen shot showing the positions of Rosetta and 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko from the “Where is Rosetta” page on the ESA site.

If you watch it from the begining, you will notice around late 2010 or early 2011 both the comet and Rosetta go “off screen”, click the “reset view” to zoom out to see it. I would suggest not hitting that link until then though as early on the orbits by Rosetta are pretty interesting as far as how the mission was set up to put the spacecaft in position to chase down Churyumov–Gerasimenko — it loses its flair zoomed out.

You can also move the slider along the time line if you are in a hurry.

The Lagoon Nebula

The Lagoon Nebula.  Click for larger.  Credit: ESO
The Lagoon Nebula. Click for larger. Credit: ESO

A wonderful image of the Lagoon Nebula from the VLT Survey Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and operated by the ESO.

I enjoy the Lagoon, it’s low in my sky but I can see it (it can be seen with binoculars during the summer if you have a decent sky). Nothing like this though, but then I don’t have a 16,000 pixel-wide camera either.

Yes, 16,000 pixel-wide, to that end the best way to enjoy this image is to go to the large version at ESO (here is the direct link). The image is zoomable and is just amazing, if you have a few minutes to spare do check it out.

The Lagoon Nebula is also known as Messier 8, it is a giant cloud some 31 parsecs (100 light-years) across in the constellation Sagittarius about 1,500 parsecs (5,000 light-years away).

Read more at the ESO website.


Super Star

An enlargement of the cluster from the original image, linked below.  Credit: ESO
An enlargement of the Westerlund cluster of stars from the original image, linked below. Credit: ESO

The star at the heart of this story is called Westerlund 1-26 or just W 26, it is about the biggest star we know of in our galaxy. It is some 1,500 + times the size of our sun! As the press release below tells, the star is in the process of dying, surly to become a black hole.

The star W 26 is part of a cluster of stars especially notable because of the large number of very massive stars.

The cluster was discovered in 1961 by Bengt Westerlund. The cluster was difficult to study for a long time because of dust and gas clouds and is one of the reasons distance estimates vary so much, last estimate I saw was a little over 4,900 pc, or around 16,000-light years.

The problem of the gas and dust doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for a very amazing telescope the VLT Survey Telescope. If the telescope isn’t cool enough, the camera on it, the OmegaCAM is incredible!

From the ESO (use this link to see the original image):

This new picture from the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory shows the remarkable super star cluster Westerlund 1 (eso1034). This exceptionally bright cluster lies about 16 000 light-years from Earth in the southern constellation of Ara (The Altar). It contains hundreds of very massive and brilliant stars, all of which are just a few million years old — babies by stellar standards. But our view of this cluster is hampered by gas and dust that prevents most of the visible light from the cluster’s stars from getting to Earth.

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