Picture of the Week 2013

30 December 2013

Bright Night at Paranal

When night falls, ESO's observatories spring to life. Astronomers and technicians take their positions, and telescopes are pointed skywards. This image shows the pristine skies over ESO's Paranal Observatory in the Chilean Atacama Desert, far away from city lights.

Here, ESO photo ambassador Gabriel Brammer has captured the serene beauty of the Milky Way from the platform of the Very Large Telescope. The four massive blocks in the bottom of the image are the four VLT Unit Telescopes, each of them housing incredibly precise 8.2-metre mirrors. Scattered around are the VLT's Auxiliary Telescopes, easily identifiable due to their round, white domes. The bright spot to the left is the Moon, shining as brightly as if it were the Sun, and to the right, the shadow of the photographer can be seen, waving to the viewer with outstretched arms.

The entire night sky is visible due to Brammer's use of a fish-eye lens, creating this circular effect with the ground bordering the frame.


23 December 2013

Season's Greetings from the European Southern Observatory!

Season's Greetings on behalf of everyone at the European Southern Observatory! We wish you a jolly end of the year and a fruitful 2014!

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16 December 2013

Star Trails over the VLT in Paranal

This image was taken by Babak A. Tafreshi, one of ESO’s Photo Ambassadors, at ESO’s Paranal Observatory. It shows three of the four Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs) of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI). Above them, the long bright stripes are star trails, each one marking the apparent path of a single star across the dark night sky, due to the rotation of the Earth. This technique also enhances the natural colours of the stars, which gives an indication of their temperature, ranging from about 1000 degrees Celsius for the reddest stars to a few tens of thousands of degrees Celsius for the hottest, which appear blue. The sky in this remote and high location in Chile is extremely clear and there is no light pollution, offering us this amazing light show.


9 December 2013

Brand New Image of Nova Centauri 2013

Alpha and Beta Centauri, two of the brightest stars in the southern sky, now have a new companion — the naked eye Nova Centauri 2013.

This photo was taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Yuri Beletsky at ESO's La Silla Observatory in the Chilean Atacama Desert in the morning hours of Monday 9 December 2013.

The nova was discovered by John Seach from Australia on 2 December 2013 as it approached naked eye brightness. Nova Centaurus 2013 is the brightest nova to have occurred so far this millennium.

This particular event is known as a classical nova, and is not to be confused with a supernova. Classical novae occur in binary star systems when hydrogen gas from the orbiting stellar partner is accreted onto the surface of the main star, causing a runaway thermonuclear event resulting in the brightening of the main star. In a classical novae the main star is not destroyed as is the case in a supernova. Instead, the star is dramatically brightened, and there is a simultaneous expansion of a debris shell.

The nova appears in the picture just to the left of Beta Centauri, the bluer and higher of the two bright stars in the lower-right part of the image. The Southern Cross and the Coal Sack Nebula are also captured near the top of the picture.

In front at the left is the ESO 3.6-metre telescope, inaugurated in 1976, it currently operates with the HARPS spectrograph, the most prolific exoplanet hunting machine in the world. Located 600 km north of Santiago, at 2400 m altitude in the outskirts of the Chilean Atacama Desert, La Silla was first ESO site in Chile and the largest observatory of its time.

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2 December 2013

Zodiacal Glow Lightens Paranal Sky

This impressive photograph, taken at the site of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal Observatory in Chile, shows, towards the centre left, the Milky Way — with its share of nebulae, stars, and gas clouds — rising above the VLT Unit Telescopes.

To the right, competing for attention as it arcs above the horizon, a beautiful, almost triangular band of diffuse light lies along the ecliptic, which is the apparent path of the Sun in the sky as seen from the Earth.

This glow originates in the scattering of sunlight by dust located between the planets that are spread through the plane of the Solar System. This coincides in the sky with the band known as the Zodiac, which extends for eight degrees of arc on either side of the ecliptic and contains the traditional zodiacal constellations.


25 November 2013

Ancient Constellations over ALMA

Babak Tafreshi, one of the ESO Photo Ambassadors, has captured the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in an enthralling image combining the beauty of the southern sky with the amazing dimensions of the biggest astronomical project in the world.

Thousands of stars are revealed to the naked eye in the clear skies over the Chajnantor Plateau. Its dry and transparent night sky is one of the reasons ALMA has been built here. Surprisingly bright in the upper left corner of the picture, there is a tightly packed bunch of young stars, the Pleiades Cluster, which was already known to most ancient civilisations. The constellation of Orion (The Hunter) is clearly visible over the closest of the antennas — the hunter’s belt is formed by the three blue stars just to the left of the red light. According to classic mythology, Orion was a hunter who chased the Pleiades, the beautiful daughters of Atlas. When seen through the thin atmosphere over the Atacama, it almost seems that this epic hunt is really happening.

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.


18 November 2013

New Image of Comet ISON

This new view of Comet C/2012 S1 (ISON) was taken with the TRAPPIST national telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory on the morning of Friday 15 November 2013. Comet ISON was first spotted in our skies in September 2012, and will make its closest approach to the Sun in late November 2013.

TRAPPIST has been monitoring comet ISON since mid-October, using broad-band filters like those used in this image. It has also been using special narrow-band filters which isolate the emission of various gases, allowing astronomers to count how many molecules of each type are released by the comet.

Comet ISON was fairly quiet until 1 November 2013, when a first outburst doubled the amount of gas emitted by the comet. On 13 November, just before this image was taken, a second giant outburst shook the comet, increasing its activity by a factor of ten. It is now bright enough to be seen with a good pair of binoculars from a dark site, in the morning skies towards the East. Over the past couple of nights, the comet has stabilised at its new level of activity.

These outbursts were caused by the intense heat of the Sun reaching ice in the tiny nucleus of the comet as it zooms toward the Sun, causing the ice to sublimate and throwing large amounts of dust and gas into space. By the time ISON makes its closest approach to the Sun on 28 November (at only 1.2 million kilometres from its surface — just a little less than the diameter of the Sun!), the heat will cause even more ice to sublimate. However, it could also break the whole nucleus down into small fragments, which would completely evaporate by the time the comet moves away from the Sun's intense heat. If ISON survives its passage near the Sun, it could then become spectacularly bright in the morning sky.

The image is a composite of four different 30-second exposures through blue, green, red, and near-infrared filters. As the comet moved in front of the background stars, these appear as multiple coloured dots.

TRAPPIST (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) is devoted to the study of planetary systems through two approaches: the detection and characterisation of planets located outside the Solar System (exoplanets), and the study of comets orbiting around the Sun. The 60-cm national telescope is operated from a control room in Liège, Belgium, 12 000 km away.

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11 November 2013

ALMA Panoramic View with Carina Nebula

ESO Photo Ambassador, Babak Tafreshi captured this panoramic view of the antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) under the clear sky over the Chajnantor Plateau, in the Chilean Andes.

The rosy patch prominent at the left of the image is the Carina Nebula. It lies in the constellation of Carina (The Keel), about 7500 light-years from Earth. This cloud of glowing gas and dust is the one of brightest nebulae in the sky and contains several of the brightest and most massive stars known in the Milky Way, such as Eta Carinae. For some beautiful recent images of the Carina Nebula from ESO, see eso1208, eso1145, and eso1031.

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.


4 November 2013

Equine Visitors

On a dark September night at  ESO’s La Silla Observatory, after spending the night at the telescope, astronomer Klaas Wiersema was returning to the restaurant. Most of the work at an observatory takes place at night, so it is not rare to have scientists and technicians walking around in the darkness.

This time, something unexpected happened. Suddenly, Klaas heard a loud snort behind him and the sound of massive feet chasing him. He was convinced that some kind of angry animal had emerged from its lair and was trying to hunt him down, so he ran like the wind. He couldn’t imagine what kind of beast was chasing him on the desolate slopes of the Atacama Desert, at 2400 metres above sea level, so he spent the rest of the night trying figure out the mystery.

When daylight came he went exploring, only to find that he had passed too close to a herd of wild horses visiting the observatory. The stallion was probably trying to defend its mares. He snapped this picture as proof of his close encounter the night before.

Klaas submitted this unique image 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.

Links


28 October 2013

Flaming Sky over Paranal

In this ghostly night picture, taken at Paranal Observatory, we can see three out of four VLT Auxiliary Telescopes. Each one of them is a 1.8-metre telescope designed to work along with the other three as a single telescope, thanks to the VLT Interferometer.

In the background, the quiet beauty of the Atacama sky is enhanced by a red aurora-like shimmer, called airglow, which is caused by light-emitting chemical reactions in the atmosphere. Normally, those emissions are not so strong, but the night this image was taken they were unusually bright, producing this unusual picture.


21 October 2013

Two naked-eye galaxies above the VLT

This stunning image of the clear Chilean sky shows a speckling of bright stars and distant galaxies across the frame, all suspended above one of the four Unit Telescopes (UTs) of the Very Large Telescope (VLT). This is the fourth UT and it is known as Yepun (Venus).

Two objects seen in this frame are more famous than their neighbours. In the left hand portion of the image is a fairly prominent galaxy that forms a streak across the sky — Messier 31, or the Andromeda Galaxy. Upwards and to the right of this smudge is a bright star, which in turn points upwards to a galaxy that lies roughly along the same extended line. This star is named Beta Andromedae — otherwise known as Mirach — and the second galaxy is Messier 33 (at the top of the frame). These two galaxies are thought to have interacted in the past, forming a bridge of hydrogen gas that spans the gap between them.

This image was taken by ESO photo ambassador Babak Tafreshi.

Links


14 October 2013

Surprise Cloud Around Vast Star

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.

Now, astronomers studying images of Westerlund 1 from a new survey of the southern skies [1] have spotted something unexpected in this cluster. Around one of the stars — known as W26, a red supergiant and possibly the biggest star known— they have discovered clouds of glowing hydrogen gas, shown as green features in this new image.

Such glowing clouds around massive stars are very rare, and are even rarer around a red supergiant— this is the first ionised nebula discovered around such a star. W26 itself would be too cool to make the gas glow; the astronomers speculate that the source of the ionising radiation may be either hot blue stars elsewhere in the cluster, or possibly a fainter, but much hotter, companion star to W26.

W26 will eventually explode as a supernova. The nebula that surrounds it is very similar to the nebula surrounding SN1987A, the remnants of a star that went supernova in 1987 [2]. SN1987A was the closest observed supernova to Earth since 1604, and as such it gave astronomers a chance to explore the properties of these explosions. Studying objects like this new nebula around W26 will help astronomers to understand the mass loss processes around these massive stars, which eventually lead to their explosive demise.

Notes

[1] This picture forms part of a detailed public survey of a large part of the Milky Way called VPHAS+ that is using the power of the VST to search for new objects such as young stars and planetary nebulae. A spectacular recent picture of the Prawn Nebula was made using observations from the same survey.

[2] This nebula is thought to have surrounded SN1987A’s progenitor star since before it went supernova.

Links


7 October 2013

An Oasis, or a Secret Lair?

This image shows a dark Chilean sky filled with spectacular star trails — caused by the Earth's rotation during the camera's long exposure time. Underneath these dramatic streaks lies the Paranal Residencia, an oasis to the staff and visitors to ESO's Very Large Telescope, located high on Cerro Paranal in the Chilean desert.

Construction of the Residencia began in 1998 and was completed by 2002. Since then, it has offered a welcome break from the harsh, dry climate of the desert to the scientists and engineers who work at Paranal Observatory.

The four-storey building has the majority of its structure buried underground. The facility was designed by German architects Auer+Weber to complement the surrounding environment. From certain angles, the combination of hi-tech utilitarian architecture and inconspicuous, almost camouflage-like design is reminiscent of a villain’s secret lair. Perhaps it is no surprise that the Residencia was selected as the setting for the final battle in the 2008 James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

Flickr user John Colosimo 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.

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30 September 2013

Unveiling distant stars and galaxies

This frame, scattered with distant stars and galaxies, is a deep-field image taken using the Wide Field Imager (WFI), a camera mounted on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope located at the La Silla Observatory, Chile.

It was snapped as part of the COMBO-17 survey (Classifying Objects by Medium-Band Observations in 17 filters), a project that imaged five small patches of sky in 17 different coloured optical filters. The total area of sky explored in each of the COMBO-17 fields equates to approximately the same size as the full Moon, and has revealed huge numbers of distant objects — demonstrating just how much is still waiting to be discovered in our skies.

The image shows a region that was also investigated as part of the FORS Deep Field (FDF), a project that examined various areas of sky in great detail and depth using the FORS2 spectrograph instrument currently installed on ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory, Chile. However, these WFI images used many more filters than previous FDF observations, and looked at bigger patches of sky, resulting in images like the one above.

These small glimpses into the Universe have unveiled tens of thousands of distant stars, galaxies, and quasars previously hidden from our view, and have been used to investigate gravitational lensing and the distribution of dark matter in galaxies and clusters.

Links


23 September 2013

New Cool Starlet in Our Backyard

This new image, from ESO’s VISTA telescope, shows a newly-discovered brown dwarf nicknamed VVV BD001, which is located at the very centre of this zoomable image. It is the first new brown dwarf spotted in our cosmic neighbourhood as part of the VVV Survey. VVV BD001 is located about 55 light-years away from us, towards the very crowded centre of our galaxy.

Brown dwarfs are stars that never quite managed to grow up into a star like our Sun. They are often referred to as “failed stars”; they are larger in size than planets like Jupiter, but smaller than stars.

This dwarf is peculiar in two ways; firstly, it is the first one found towards the centre of our Milky Way, one of the most crowded regions of the sky. Secondly, it belongs to an unusual class of stars known as “unusually blue brown dwarfs” — it is still unclear why these stars are bluer than expected.

Brown dwarfs are born in the same way as stars, but do not have enough mass to trigger the burning of hydrogen to become normal stars. Because of this they are much cooler and produce far less light, making them harder to find. Astronomers generally look for these objects using near and mid-infrared cameras and special telescopes that are sensitive to these very cool objects, but usually avoid looking in very crowded regions of space — such as the central region of our galaxy, for example.

VISTA (the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) is the world’s largest survey telescope and is located at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. It is performing six separate surveys of the sky, and the VVV (VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea) survey is designed to catalogue a billion objects in the centre of our own Milky Way galaxy. VVV BD001 was discovered by chance during this survey.

Scientists have used the VVV catalogue to create a 3 dimensional map of the central bulge of the Milky Way (eso1339). The data have also been used to create a monumental 108 200 by 81 500 pixel colour image containing nearly nine billion pixels (eso1242), one of the biggest astronomical images ever produced.

Links


16 September 2013

Toconao Seen From Above

The small village of Toconao is the closest settlement to the largest astronomy project in existence, ALMA [1], the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. Toconao has less than 800 inhabitants and is located at 2475 metres above sea level in a natural oasis fed by a small mountain river on the outskirts of the driest desert in the world, the Atacama. The river doesn’t flow all year, but the local farmers have wisely built a network of dams and channels to regulate the flow of water so that they can have crops all year round.

When looking closely at this image, some buildings can be spotted, made of traditional materials such as adobe and volcanic rock, like the San Lucas Church and Bell Tower, on the bottom left of the image.

In parallel with their scientific work, ALMA staff have worked with the Atacameño Elders in Toconao and other areas to recover the vision of the Universe of their culture, aiming to preserve this cultural and scientific heritage for later generations.

ALMA has also been supporting an educational improvement plan at School E-21, a rural public education establishment in Toconao, since 2008. This plan, endorsed by the community, is focused on improving education in science and english.

This aerial image was taken by the two crew members of the ORA Wings for Science project, Clémentine Bacri and Adrien Normier, who flew a special eco-friendly ultralight aeroplane [2] on a year-long journey around the world to help out scientists, with aerial capabilities ranging from air sampling to archaeology, biodiversity observation and 3D terrain modelling.

ESO has an ongoing outreach partnership with this non-profit organisation. Short movies and amazing pictures that are produced during the flights will be used for educational purposes and for promoting local research. Their circumnavigation started in June 2012 and finished in June 2013 with a landing at the Paris Air Show.

Notes

[1] The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded in Europe by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), in North America by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and in East Asia by the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of Europe by ESO, on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), which is managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) 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.

[2] The ultralight aircraft is a NASA-award winning Pipistrel Virus SW 80 using only 7 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres — less than most cars.


9 September 2013

Eyes over Cerro Armazones

This spectacular aerial shot of Cerro Armazones, taken by ESO Photo Ambassador Gerhard Hüdepohl, represents that wonderful moment for a photographer: when everything lines up for the perfect shot.

Hüdepohl captured this image while on a commercial flight from Antofagasta to Santiago. Shortly after taking off the plane took the ideal flight path for an aerial snap of Cerro Armazones — and Hüdepohl could not have asked for better conditions. Seizing the moment, he was able to capture this unusual perspective, high above the spectacular terrain.

This image shows the Atacama Desert with amazing clarity, with the thin, zigzag path standing out sharply from the dusty terrain. This dirt road can be seen slicing its way up to the summit of Cerro Armazones. The site will soon become the home of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), a 39-metre telescope that will not only answer existing questions in astronomy, but also raise — and hopefully answer — entirely new questions altogether.

Links


2 September 2013

PESSTO Snaps Supernova in Messier 74

ESO's PESSTO survey has captured this view of Messier 74, a stunning spiral galaxy with well-defined whirling arms. However, the real subject of this image is the galaxy's brilliant new addition from late July 2013: a Type II supernova named SN2013ej that is visible as the brightest star at the bottom left of the image.

Such supernovae occur when the core of a massive star collapses due to its own gravity at the end of its life. This collapse results in a massive explosion that ejects material far into space. The resulting detonation can be more brilliant than the entire galaxy that hosts it and can be visible to observers for weeks, or even months.

PESSTO (Public ESO Spectroscopic Survey for Transient Objects) is designed to study objects that appear briefly in the night sky, such as supernovae. It does this by utilising a number of instruments on the NTT (New Technology Telescope), located at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile. This new picture of SN2013ej was obtained using the NTT during the course of this survey.

SN2013ej is the third supernova to have been observed in Messier 74 since the turn of the millennium, the other two being SN 2002ap and SN 2003gd. It was first reported on 25 July 2013 by the KAIT telescope team in California, and the first "precovery image" was taken by amateur astronomer Christina Feliciano, who used the public access SLOOH Space Camera to look at the region in the days and hours immediately before the explosion.

Messier 74, in the constellation of Pisces (The Fish), is one of the most difficult Messier objects for amateur astronomers to spot due to its low surface brightness, but SN2013ej should still be visible to careful amateur astronomers over the next few weeks as a faint and fading star.

Links


26 August 2013

Carved by Massive Stars

This image, captured by ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal, shows a small part of the well-known emission nebula, NGC 6357, located some 8000 light-years away, in the tail of the southern constellation of Scorpius (The Scorpion). The image glows with the characteristic red of an H II region, and contains a large amount of ionised and excited hydrogen gas.

The cloud is bathed in intense ultraviolet radiation — mainly from the open star cluster Pismis 24, home to some massive, young, blue stars — which it re-emits as visible light, in this distinctive red hue.

The cluster itself is out of the field of view of this picture, its diffuse light seen illuminating the cloud on the centre-right of the image. We are looking at a close-up of the surrounding nebula, showing a mesh of gas, dark dust, and newly born and still forming stars.


19 August 2013

Starry Night at La Silla

A piercingly bright curtain of stars is the backdrop for this beautiful image taken by astronomer Håkon Dahle. The silhouetted figure in the foreground is Håkon himself surrounded by just a couple of the great dark domes that litter the mountain of ESO’s La Silla Observatory.

Many professional astronomers are also keen photographers — and who could blame them? ESO sites in the Atacama Desert are among the best places on Earth for observing the stars, and for the same reason, are amazing places for photographing the night sky.

Håkon took these photos while on a week-long observing run at the MPG/ESO 2.2 -telescope. During this time, the telescope was occasionally handed over to a different observing team, giving Håkon the opportunity to admire the starry night — as well as to capture it for the rest of us to see.

The Milky Way is brighter in the Southern Hemisphere than in the North, because of the way our planet’s southern regions point towards the dense galactic centre. But even in the South, the Milky Way in the night sky is quite faint in the sky. For most of us, light pollution from our cities and even the Moon can outshine the faint glow of the galaxy, hiding it from view.

One of the best aspects of La Silla Observatory is that it is far away from bright city lights, giving it some of the darkest night skies on Earth. The atmosphere is also very clear, so there is no haze to further muddy your vision. The skies at La Silla are so dark that it is possible to see a shadow cast by the light of the Milky Way alone.

Håkon 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.


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