Press Releases 2004

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eso0419 — Science Release
Charting the Giants
3 June 2004: Astronomers unveil a few hundred clusters of galaxies by observing their emission in the X-Ray wavelengths. This study also provides new insights on the amount of dark matter in the Universe.
eso0418 — Science Release
Missing Black Holes Driven Out
28 May 2004: Astronomers discover an entire population of obscured, powerful supermassive black holes. This unprecedented result, achieved through combination of information from multiple wavelengths, coming from different telescopes in the world, has been possible thanks to the Astrophysical Virtual Observatory project.
eso0417 — Organisation Release
Feeling the Heat
12 May 2004: Close to midnight on April 30, 2004, intriguing thermal infrared images of dust and gas heated by invisible stars in a distant region of our Milky Way appeared on a computer screen in the control room of the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT). These images mark the successful "First Light" of the VLT Imager and Spectrometer in the InfraRed (VISIR), the latest instrument to be installed on this powerful telescope facility at the ESO Paranal Observatory in Chile. The event was greeted with a mixture of delight, satisfaction and some relief by the team of astronomers and engineers from the consortium of French and Dutch Institutes and ESO who have worked on the development of VISIR for around 10 years [1]. Pierre-Olivier Lagage (CEA, France), the Principal Investigator, is content : "This is a wonderful day! A result of many years of dedication by a team of engineers and technicians, who can today be proud of their work. With VISIR, astronomers will have at their disposal a great instrument on a marvellous telescope. And the gain is enormous; 20 minutes of observing with VISIR is equivalent to a whole night of observing on a 3-4m class telescope." Dutch astronomer and co-PI Jan-Willem Pel (Groningen, The Netherlands) adds: "What's more, VISIR features a unique observing mode in the mid-infrared: spectroscopy at a very high spectral resolution. This will open up new possibilities such as the study of warm molecular hydrogen most likely to be an important component of our galaxy."
eso0416 — Science Release
Shadow of a Large Disc Casts New Light on the Formation of High Mass Stars
12 May 2004: Based on a large observational effort with different telescopes and instruments, mostly from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a team of European astronomers [1] has shown that in the M 17 nebula a high mass star [2] forms via accretion through a circumstellar disc, i.e. through the same channel as low-mass stars. To reach this conclusion, the astronomers used very sensitive infrared instruments to penetrate the south-western molecular cloud of M 17 so that faint emission from gas heated up by a cluster of massive stars, partly located behind the molecular cloud, could be detected through the dust. Against the background of this hot region a large opaque silhouette, which resembles a flared disc seen nearly edge-on, is found to be associated with an hour-glass shaped reflection nebula. This system complies perfectly with a newly forming high-mass star surrounded by a huge accretion disc and accompanied by an energetic bipolar mass outflow. The new observations corroborate recent theoretical calculations which claim that stars up to 40 times more massive than the Sun can be formed by the same processes that are active during the formation of stars of smaller masses.
eso0415 — Science Release
Two Extremely Hot Exoplanets Caught in Transit
7 May 2004: A European team of astronomers [1] are announcing the discovery and study of two new extra-solar planets (exoplanets). They belong to the OGLE transit candidate objects and could be characterized in detail. This trebles the number of exoplanets discovered by the transit method; three such objects are now known. The observations were performed in March 2004 with the FLAMES multi-fiber spectrograph on the 8.2-m VLT Kueyen telescope at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile). They enabled the astronomers to measure accurate radial velocities for forty-one stars for which a temporary brightness "dip" had been detected by the OGLE survey. This effect might be the signature of the transit in front of the star of an orbiting planet, but may also be caused by a small stellar companion. For two of the stars (OGLE-TR-113 and OGLE-TR-132), the measured velocity changes revealed the presence of planetary-mass companions in extremely short-period orbits. This result confirms the existence of a new class of giant planets, designated "very hot Jupiters" because of their size and very high surface temperature. They are extremely close to their host stars, orbiting them in less than 2 (Earth) days. The transit method for detecting exoplanets will be "demonstrated" for a wide public on June 8, 2004, when planet Venus passes in front of the solar disc, cf. the VT-2004 programme.
eso0414 — Science Release
Closer to the Monster
5 May 2004: Fulfilling an old dream of astronomers, observations with the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at the ESO Paranal Observatory (Chile) have now made it possible to obtain a clear picture of the immediate surroundings of the black hole at the centre of an active galaxy. The new results concern the spiral galaxy NGC 1068, located at a distance of about 50 million light-years. They show a configuration of comparatively warm dust (about 50°C) measuring 11 light-years across and 7 light-years thick, with an inner, hotter zone (500°C), about 2 light-years wide. These imaging and spectral observations confirm the current theory that black holes at the centres of active galaxies are enshrouded in a thick doughnut-shaped structure of gas and dust called a "torus." For this trailblazing study, the first of its kind of an extragalactic object by means of long-baseline infrared interferometry, an international team of astronomers [2] used the new MIDI instrument in the VLTI Laboratory. It was designed and constructed in a collaboration between German, Dutch and French research institutes [3]. Combining the light from two 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes during two observing runs in June and November 2003, respectively, a maximum resolution of 0.013 arcsec was achieved, corresponding to about 3 light-years at the distance of NGC 1068. Infrared spectra of the central region of this galaxy were obtained that indicate that the heated dust is probably of alumino-silicate composition. The new results are published in a research paper appearing in the May 6, 2004, issue of the international research journal Nature.
eso0413 — Photo Release
Cosmic Ballet or Devil's Mask?
28 April 2004: Stars like our Sun are members of galaxies, and most galaxies are themselves members of clusters of galaxies. In these, they move around among each other in a mostly slow and graceful ballet. But every now and then, two or more of the members may get too close for comfort - the movements become hectic, sometimes indeed dramatic, as when galaxies end up colliding.
eso0412 — Science Release
A "Dragon" on the Surface of Titan
14 April 2004: New images of unsurpassed clarity have been obtained with the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) of formations on the surface of Titan, the largest moon in the Saturnian system. They were made by an international research team [1] during recent commissioning observations with the "Simultaneous Differential Imager (SDI)", a novel optical device, just installed at the NACO Adaptive Optics instrument [2]. With the high-contrast SDI camera, it is possible to obtain extremely sharp images in three colours simultaneously. Although mainly conceived for exoplanet imaging, this device is also very useful for observations of objects with thick atmospheres in the solar system like Titan. Peering at the same time through a narrow, unobscured near-infrared spectral window in the dense methane atmosphere and an adjacent non-transparent waveband, images were obtained that are virtually uncontaminated by atmospheric components. They map the reflectivity of a large number of surface features in unprecedented detail. The images show a number of surface regions with very different reflectivity. Of particular interest are several large "dark" areas of uniformly low reflectivity. One possible interpretation is that they represent huge surface reservoirs of liquid hydrocarbons. Whatever the case, these new observations will be most useful for the planning of the delivery of the Huygens probe - now approaching the Saturn system on the NASA/ESA Cassini spacecraft and scheduled for descent to Titan's surface in early 2005.
eso0411 — Science Release
Milky Way Past Was More Turbulent Than Previously Known
6 April 2004: A team of astronomers from Denmark, Switzerland and Sweden [2] has achieved a major breakthrough in our understanding of the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. After more than 1,000 nights of observations spread over 15 years, they have determined the spatial motions of more than 14,000 solar-like stars residing in the neighbourhood of the Sun. For the first time, the changing dynamics of the Milky Way since its birth can now be studied in detail and with a stellar sample sufficiently large to allow a sound analysis. The astronomers find that our home galaxy has led a much more turbulent and chaotic life than previously assumed.
eso0410 — Science Release
Adding New Colours to Interferometry
5 April 2004: Another vital step has been accomplished as planned towards full operation of the ESO Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, one of the world's foremost astronomical facilities. In the night of March 20-21, 2004, a team of astronomers and engineers from France, Italy, Germany and ESO celebrated the successful assembly and completion of the first on-line tests of the latest of the first-generation VLTI instruments, the Astronomical Multiple BEam Recombiner (AMBER). They combined the two beams of light from the southern star Theta Centauri from two test telescopes ("siderostats" with 40-cm aperture) to produce strong and clear interferometric fringes. Equally successful observations were then obtained on the bright star Sirius, and consistently repeated during the following nights.
eso0409 — Organisation Release
Happy Anniversary, VLT !
1 April 2004: One of the world's most advanced astronomical research facilities, the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory in the Chilean Atacama desert, celebrates an important anniversary today.
eso0408 — Photo Release
Titanic Weather Forecasting
1 April 2004: Titan, the largest moon of Saturn was discovered by Dutch astronomer Christian Huygens in 1655 and certainly deserves its name. With a diameter of no less than 5,150 km, it is larger than Mercury and twice as large as Pluto. It is unique in having a hazy atmosphere of nitrogen, methane and oily hydrocarbons. Although it was explored in some detail by the NASA Voyager missions, many aspects of the atmosphere and surface still remain unknown. Thus, the existence of seasonal or diurnal phenomena, the presence of clouds, the surface composition and topography are still under debate. There have even been speculations that some kind of primitive life (now possibly extinct) may be found on Titan.
eso0407 — Science Release
New Quasar Studies Keep Fundamental Physical Constant Constant
31 March 2004: Detecting or constraining the possible time variations of fundamental physical constants is an important step toward a complete understanding of basic physics and hence the world in which we live. A step in which astrophysics proves most useful. Previous astronomical measurements of the fine structure constant - the dimensionless number that determines the strength of interactions between charged particles and electromagnetic fields - suggested that this particular constant is increasing very slightly with time. If confirmed, this would have very profound implications for our understanding of fundamental physics. New studies, conducted using the UVES spectrograph on Kueyen, one of the 8.2-m telescopes of ESO's Very Large Telescope array at Paranal (Chile), secured new data with unprecedented quality. These data, combined with a very careful analysis, have provided the strongest astronomical constraints to date on the possible variation of the fine structure constant. They show that, contrary to previous claims, no evidence exist for assuming a time variation of this fundamental constant.
eso0406 — Photo Release
ESO's Telescope Takes Picture of ESA's Rosetta's Target, Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko
2 March 2004: In the morning of March 2, the Rosetta spacecraft was launched on board an Ariane-5 launcher from the European Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The European Space Agency (ESA) spacecraft will be the first to land on a comet.
eso0405 — Science Release
VLT Smashes the Record of the Farthest Known Galaxy
1 March 2004: Using the ISAAC near-infrared instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope, and the magnification effect of a gravitational lens, a team of French and Swiss astronomers [2] has found several faint galaxies believed to be the most remote known. Further spectroscopic studies of one of these candidates has provided a strong case for what is now the new record holder - and by far - of the most distant galaxy known in the Universe. Named Abell 1835 IR1916, the newly discovered galaxy has a redshift of 10 [3] and is located about 13,230 million light-years away. It is therefore seen at a time when the Universe was merely 470 million years young, that is, barely 3 percent of its current age. This primeval galaxy appears to be ten thousand times less massive than our Galaxy, the Milky Way. It might well be among the first class of objects which put an end to the Dark Ages of the Universe. This remarkable discovery illustrates the potential of large ground-based telescopes in the near-infrared domain for the exploration of the very early Universe.
eso0404 — Organisation Release
Announcing the VT-2004 Public Education Programme
16 February 2004: On June 8, 2004, Venus - the Earth's sister planet - will pass in front of the Sun. This event, a 'transit', is extremely rare - the last one occurred in 1882, 122 years ago. Easily observable in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia, it is likely to attract the attention of millions of people on these continents and, indeed, all over the world. On this important occasion, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has joined forces with the European Association for Astronomy Education (EAAE), the Institut de Mécanique Céleste et de Calcul des Éphémérides (IMCCE) and the Observatoire de Paris in France, as well as the Astronomical Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic to establish the Venus Transit 2004 (VT-2004) public education programme. It is supported by the European Commission in the framework of the European Science and Technology Week and takes advantage of this extraordinary celestial event to expose the public - in a well-considered, interactive and exciting way - to a number of fundamental issues at the crucial interface between society and basic science. VT-2004 has several components, including an instructive and comprehensive website ( It is directed towards the wide public in general and the media, school students and their teachers, as well as amateur astronomers in particular. It invites all interested persons to participate actively in the intercontinental VT-2004 Observing Campaign (that reenacts historical Venus Transit observations) and the VT-2004 Video Contest. During the VT-2004 Final Event in November, the winners of the Video Contest will be chosen by an international jury. This meeting will also serve to discuss the project and its impact.
eso0403 — Organisation Release
Finland to join ESO
9 February 2004: Finland will become the eleventh member state of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) [1]. Today, during a ceremony at the ESO Headquarters in Garching (Germany), a corresponding Agreement was signed by the Finnish Minister of Education and Science, Ms. Tuula Haatainen and the ESO Director General, Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, in the presence of other high officials from Finland and the ESO member states (see Video Clip 02/04 below). Following subsequent ratification by the Finnish Parliament of the ESO Convention and the associated protocols [2], it is foreseen that Finland will formally join ESO on July 1, 2004.
eso0402 — Organisation Release
First Auxiliary Telescope for the VLT Interferometer Installed at Paranal
30 January 2004: Another advanced astronomical telescope has just been installed at the Paranal Observatory, located in the heart of the Chilean Atacama Desert and home of the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT). The new telescope, known as Auxiliary Telescope no. 1 (AT1), forms part of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI). It has a main mirror of 1.8-m diameter and is installed in a compact dome. In contrast to the four giant 8.2-m telescopes and, indeed, to any other telescope in the world of this size, it can be moved along a system of railway tracks on the top of the Paranal mountain. It sends the captured light from celestial objects into the subterranean Interferometric Tunnel from where it is directed to the central Interferometric Laboratory. This is the first of four AT's that will be installed in 2004-2006. These compact, high-tech telescopes are built by the AMOS company in Liège (Belgium). When placed in different configurations on the tracks, they will enable the VLTI to operate with great flexibility (also when the large telescopes are busy with other observations) and to obtain extremely sharp images of celestial objects - ultimately with a resolution that corresponds to seeing an astronaut on the Moon.
eso0401 — Organisation Release
ESO PR Highlights in 2003.
7 January 2004: Among the many astronomical highlights of 2003, the Transit of Mercury certainly attracted great attention as shown by the record number of hits the ESO web page received on that day. But this was a mere rehearsal of an even bigger event we will enjoy in 2004: the Venus Transit.
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