Europe to the Stars (OV)

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Video in TIB AV-Portal: Europe to the Stars (OV)

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Europe to the Stars (OV)
ESO’s first 50 years of exploring the southern sky
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Zodet, Herbert
Lindberg Christensen, Lars

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The official movie for ESO's 50th anniversary, Europe to the Stars, takes the viewer on a 58-minute journey behind the scenes at the most productive ground-based observatory of the world. Science, history, technology, people... The movie captures the story of its epic adventure — a story of cosmic curiosity, courage and perseverance. The story of discovering a Universe of deep mysteries and hidden secrets. The story of designing, building and operating the most powerful ground-based telescopes on the planet. The movie consists of eight chapters each focusing on an essential aspect of an observatory, while putting things in perspective and offering a broader view on how astronomy is made. From site testing and explaining the best conditions for observing the sky to how telescopes are built and what mysteries of the Universe astronomers are revealing.
Keywords European Southern Observatory
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This is the story of an epic adventure...
A story of cosmic curiosity, courage and perseverance... The story of how Europe went South to explore the stars.
Going South
Welcome to ESO, the European Southern Observatory. Fifty years old, but more vital than ever.
ESO is Europe???s portal to the stars.
Here astronomers from fifteen countries
join forces to unravel the secrets of the Universe.
How? By building the largest telescopes on Earth.
Designing sensitive cameras and instruments.
Scrutinising the heavens. Their work has looked at objects near and far,
from comets traversing the Solar System,
to distant galaxies at the very edge of space and time,
giving us fresh insights and an unprecedented view of the Universe.
A Universe of deep mysteries and hidden secrets. And staggering beauty. From remote mountaintops in Chile, European astronomers are reaching for the stars.
But why Chile? What made the astronomers go South?
The European Southern Observatory has its Headquarters in Garching, Germany.
But from Europe, only part of the sky can be seen. To fill in the gaps, you have to travel south. For many centuries, maps of the southern sky showed extensive blank areas ??? the Terra Incognita of the heavens.
1595. For the first time, Dutch traders set sail to the East Indies.
At night, navigators Pieter Keyser and Frederik de Houtman
measured the positions of more than 130 stars in the southern sky.
Soon, celestial globes and maps showed twelve new constellations, none of which had ever been seen before by any European. The British were the first to construct a permanent astronomical outpost in the southern hemisphere. The Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope was founded in 1820. Not much later, John Herschel built his own private observatory, close to South Africa???s famous Table Mountain. What a view! Dark skies. Bright clusters and star clouds high overhead.
Little wonder that Harvard, Yale and Leiden observatories followed suit with their own southern stations. But the exploration of the southern sky still took lots of courage, passion and perseverance.
Until fifty years ago, almost all major telescopes were located north of the equator. So why is the southern sky so important? First of all, because it was largely uncharted territory. You just can???t see the whole sky from Europe. A prominent example is the centre of the Milky Way, our home galaxy. It can hardly be seen from the northern hemisphere, but from the south, it passes high overhead. And then there are the Magellanic Clouds ??? two small companion galaxies to the Milky Way. Invisible from the North, but very conspicuous if you???re south of the equator. And then finally, European astronomers were hindered by light pollution and poor weather. Going south would solve most of their problems.
A scenic boat trip in the Netherlands, June 1953.
It was here, on the IJsselmeer, that the German/American astronomer Walter Baade
and the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort told colleagues about their plan for a European observatory in the southern hemisphere. Individually, no one European country could compete with the United States. But together, they might.
Seven months later, twelve astronomers from six countries gathered here, in the stately Senate Room of Leiden University. They signed a statement, expressing the desire to establish a European observatory in South Africa. This paved the way for the birth of ESO. But hang on!??? South Africa?
Well, it made sense, of course. South Africa already had the Cape Observatory, and, after 1909, the Transvaal Observatory in Johannesburg. Leiden Observatory had its own southern station in Hartebeespoort.
In 1955, astronomers set up test equipment to find the best possible spot for a big telescope.
Zeekoegat in the Great Karoo. Or Tafelkopje, in Bloemfontein.
But the weather was not all that favourable.
Around 1960, the focus shifted to the rugged landscape of northern Chile.
American astronomers were also planning their own southern hemisphere observatory here.
Harsh horseback expeditions revealed much better conditions than in South Africa.
In 1963, the die was cast. Chile it would be. Six months later, Cerro La Silla was picked as the future site of the European Southern Observatory. ESO was no longer a distant dream. In the end, five European countries signed the ESO Convention, on 5 October 1962 ??? the official birthday of the European Southern Observatory.
Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden were firmly committed to jointly reach for the southern stars.
La Silla and its surroundings were bought from the Chilean government. A road was built in the middle of nowhere.
ESO???s first telescope took shape, at a steel company in Rotterdam. And in December 1966, the European Southern Observatory opened its first eye on the sky. Europe had embarked on a grand voyage of cosmic discovery.
Looking up 167,000 years ago, a star exploded in a small galaxy orbiting the Milky Way. At the time of the distant explosion, Homo sapiens just started to roam the African savannah. But no one could have noticed the cosmic fireworks, as the blast of light had only just embarked on its long journey towards Earth. By the time light from the supernova had completed 98% of its journey, Greek philosophers had just started to think about the nature of the cosmos.
Just before the light reached Earth, Galileo Galilei trained his first primitive telescopes on the heavens. And on 24 February 1987, when photons from the explosion finally rained down on our planet, astronomers were ready to observe the supernova in great detail. Supernova 1987A flared up in the southern sky ??? unobservable from Europe or the United States. But by this time, ESO had built its first big telescopes in Chile, providing astronomers with a front-row seat to this cosmic spectacle.
The telescope is of course the central tool that allows us to unravel the secrets of the Universe. Telescopes collect far more light than the unaided human eye, so they reveal fainter stars and let us peer deeper into space.
Like magnifying glasses, they also show finer detail.
And, when equipped with sensitive cameras and spectrographs,
they provide us with a wealth of information about planets, stars and galaxies.
ESO???s first telescopes on La Silla were a mixed bunch.
They ranged from small national instruments to large astrographs and wide-field cameras.
The 2.2-metre telescope ??? now almost 30 years old ???
is still producing some of the most dramatic views of the cosmos. At the highest point of Cerro La Silla lies the biggest achievement of ESO???s early years - the 3.6-metre telescope.
Aged 35, it now leads a second life as a planet hunter. Also, Swedish astronomers built a shiny dish fifteen metres across to study microwaves from cool cosmic clouds. Together, these telescopes have helped to unveil the Universe in which we live. Earth is just one of eight planets in the Solar System. From tiny Mercury to giant Jupiter, these rocky spheres and gaseous balls are the leftovers from the formation of the Sun.
The Sun, in turn, is a middle-of-the-road star in the Milky Way galaxy. One pinprick of light amidst hundreds of billions of similar stars ??? as well as bloated red giants, imploded white dwarfs, and rapidly spinning neutron stars. The spiral arms of the Milky Way are sprinkled with glowing nebulae, spawning bright clusters of newborn stars, while old globular clusters slowly swarm about the galaxy. And the Milky Way is just one of countless galaxies in a vast Universe, which has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, almost fourteen billion years ago.
Over the past fifty years, ESO has helped to uncover our place in the Universe. And by looking up, we have also discovered our own origins. We are part of the big cosmic story. Without stars, we wouldn???t be here.
The Universe started out with hydrogen and helium, the two lightest elements. But stars are nuclear ovens, turning light elements into heavier ones. And supernovae like 1987A seed the Universe with the products of this stellar alchemy. When the Solar System formed, some 4.6 billion years ago,
it contained trace amounts of these heavier elements. Metals and silicates, but also carbon and oxygen.
The carbon in our muscles, the iron in our blood, and the calcium in our bones, were all forged in an earlier generation of stars. You and I were literally made in heaven.
But answers always lead to new questions. The more we learn, the deeper the mysteries become.
What is the origin and ultimate fate of galaxies?
Are there other solar systems out there, and could there be life on alien worlds? And what lurks in the dark heart of our Milky Way galaxy?
Astronomers were clearly in need of more powerful telescopes. And ESO provided them with revolutionary new tools.
Seeing Sharp Bigger is better - at least when it comes to telescope mirrors. But larger mirrors have to be thick, so that they don't deform under their own weight. And really large mirrors deform anyway, no matter how thick and heavy they are. The solution? Thin, lightweight mirrors - and a magic trick called active optics. ESO pioneered this technology in the late 1980s, with the New Technology Telescope. And this is the state of the art. The mirrors of the Very Large Telescope ??? the VLT ??? are 8.2 metres across... ...but only 20 centimetres thick. And here???s the magic:
a computer-controlled support system ensures
that the mirror keeps its desired shape at all times to nanometre precision. The VLT is ESO???s flagship facility. Four identical telescopes, joining forces on top of Cerro Paranal, in the north of Chile. Built in the late 1990s, they provided astronomers with the best available technologies.
In the middle of the Atacama Desert, ESO created an astronomer???s paradise.
Scientists stay in La Residencia,
a guest house partly buried under the dirt and rubble of one of the driest places on the planet.
But inside are lush palm trees, a swimming pool, and... delicious Chilean sweets.
Of course, the unique selling point of the Very Large Telescope is not its swimming pool,
but its unequalled view of the Universe. Without thin mirrors and active optics, the VLT would not be possible. But there???s more. Stars appear blurry, even when observed with the best and largest telescopes.
The reason? The Earth???s atmosphere distorts the images.
Enter the second magic trick: adaptive optics.
On Paranal, laser beams shoot out into the night sky to create artificial stars.
Sensors use these stars to measure the atmospheric distortions. And hundreds of times per second, the image is corrected by computer-controlled deformable mirrors.
And the end effect? As if the turbulent atmosphere were completely removed. Just look at the difference! The Milky Way is a giant spiral galaxy. And at its core ??? 27 000 light-years away ??? lies a mystery that ESO???s Very Large Telescope helped to unravel. Massive dust clouds block our view of the Milky Way???s core. But sensitive infrared cameras can peer through the dust and uncover what lies behind. Assisted by adaptive optics they reveal dozens of red giant stars. And over the years, these stars are seen to move! They orbit an invisible object at the very centre of the Milky Way.
Judging from the stellar motions, the invisible object must be extremely massive.
A monstrous black hole, weighing in at 4.3 million times the mass of our Sun.
Astronomers have even observed energetic flares from gas clouds falling into the black hole. All exposed by the sheer power of adaptive optics.
So thin mirrors and active optics make it possible to build giant telescopes. And the adaptive optics take care of the atmospheric turbulence, providing us with extremely sharp images. But we're not done yet with our magic tricks. There's a third one. And it's called interferometry. The VLT consists of four telescopes. Together, they can act as a virtual telescope measuring 130 metres across.
Light collected by the individual telescopes is channelled through evacuated tunnels and brought together in an underground laboratory. Here, the light waves are combined using laser metrology and intricate delay lines.
The net result is the light-gathering power of four 8.2-metre mirrors,
and the eagle-eyed vision of an imaginary telescope as large as fifty tennis courts.
Four auxiliary telescopes give the network more flexibility.
They may appear tiny next to the four giants.
Yet, they sport mirrors 1.8 metres across.
That???s bigger than the largest telescope in the world just a hundred years ago!
Optical interferometry is something of a miracle. Starlight magic, wielded in the desert. And the results are impressive. The Very Large Telescope Interferometer reveals fifty times more detail
than the Hubble Telescope.
For instance, it gave us a close-up of a vampire double star. One star is stealing material from its companion.
Irregular puffs of stardust have been detected around Betelgeuse ???
a stellar giant about to go supernova.
And in dusty discs surrounding newborn stars, astronomers have found ...
... the raw material of future Earth-like worlds.
The Very Large Telescope is mankind???s sharpest eye on the sky. But astronomers have other means to expand their horizons and broaden their views. At the European Southern Observatory, they have learned to see the Universe in a completely different kind of light. Changing Views Great music, isn???t it? But suppose you had a hearing impairment. What if you couldn't hear the low frequencies? Or the high frequencies? Astronomers used to be in a similar situation. The human eye is only sensitive to a small part of all the radiation in the Universe. We can???t see light with wavelengths shorter than violet waves, or longer than red waves. We just don???t perceive the whole cosmic symphony.
Infrared, or heat radiation, was first discovered by William Herschel, in 1800. In a dark room, you can???t see me. But put on infrared goggles, and you can ???see??? my body warmth. Likewise, infrared telescopes reveal cosmic objects too cool to give off visible light, like dark clouds of gas and dust where stars and planets are born. For decades, ESO astronomers have been keen to explore the Universe at infrared wavelengths.
But the first detectors were small and hence inefficient.
They gave us a blurry view of the infrared sky.
Today???s infrared cameras are huge and powerful.
They???re cooled to very low temperatures to increase their sensitivity.
And ESO???s Very Large Telescope is designed to make good use of them.
In fact, some technological tricks, like interferometry, only work in the infrared.
We???ve broadened our view, to reveal the Universe in a new light. This dark blob is a cloud of cosmic dust. It blots out the stars in the background. But in the infrared, we can look straight through the dust.
And here???s the Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery. Most of the newborn baby stars are hidden by dust clouds. Again, infrared comes to the rescue, revealing stars in the making!
At the end of their lives, stars blow out bubbles of gas. Cosmic showpieces at optical wavelengths ??? but the infrared picture shows much more detail.
Don???t forget the stars and gas clouds captured by the monstrous black hole in the core of our Milky Way galaxy. Without infrared cameras we would never see them. In other galaxies, infrared studies have revealed the true distribution of stars like our own Sun.
The farthest galaxies can only be studied in the infrared. Their light has been shifted to these long wavelengths by the expansion of the Universe. Close to Paranal is a small mountain peak with an isolated building on top. Inside this building is the 4.1-metre VISTA telescope. It was built in the United Kingdom, ESO???s tenth Member State.
For now, VISTA only does infrared. It uses a giant camera, weighing as much as a pickup truck. And yes, VISTA offers unprecedented vistas of the infrared Universe. ESO has been doing optical astronomy since its birth, fifty years ago. And infrared astronomy for about thirty years.
But there are more registers to the cosmic symphony. Five thousand metres above sea level, high in the Chilean Andes, is the Chajnantor plateau. Astronomy doesn???t go higher than this. Chajnantor is home to ALMA ??? the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. ALMA is still under construction. At a site that is so hostile, it???s even hard to breathe! With just ten of the 66 antennas in place, ALMA made its first observations in the autumn of 2011.
Millimetre waves from space. To observe them, you need to be high and dry.
Chajnantor is one of the best places in the world for this.
Clouds of cold gas and dark dust become visible in a pair of colliding galaxies. This is not where stars are born, but where they are conceived.
And these spiral waves in the outflow of a dying star ??? could they be due to an orbiting planet?
By changing the way we look, we???re closing in on the origins of planets, stars and galaxies.
On the full symphony of the cosmos. Reaching out
Stephane Guisard loves the stars. No wonder he loves northern Chile, too.
Here, the view of the Universe is amongst the best in the world.
And no wonder he loves the European Southern Observatory ??? Europe???s eye on the sky.
Stephane is a prize-winning French photographer and author.
He is also one of ESO???s Photo Ambassadors. In breathtaking pictures, he captures the solitude of the Atacama desert,
the high-tech perfection of giant telescopes, and the magnificence of the night sky. Like his fellow photo ambassadors from all over the world, Stephane helps in spreading ESO???s message.
A message of curiosity, wonder and inspiration, proclaimed through cooperation and outreach. Cooperation has always been the basis of ESO???s success. Fifty years ago, the European Southern Observatory started out with five founding member states: Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. Soon, other European countries followed. Denmark in 1967. Italy and Switzerland in 1982. Portugal in 2001. The United Kingdom in 2002. Over the past decade, Finland, Spain, the Czech Republic and Austria also joined Europe???s largest astronomy organisation. Most recently, Brazil became ESO???s 15th Member State, and the first non-European country to join. Who knows what the future will bring?
Together, the Member States enable the best possible astronomical science at the world???s largest observatories.
It???s good for their economies, too.
ESO closely cooperates with industry, in both Europe and Chile.
Access roads had to be constructed.
Mountain tops had to be levelled. The Italian industrial consortium AES built the main structure of the four VLT telescopes.
Each telescope weighs in at some 430 tonnes. They also constructed the giant enclosures, each as high as a ten-storey building. The German glass company Schott produced the delicate VLT mirrors
??? over eight metres wide and just twenty centimetres thick.
At REOSC in France, the mirrors were polished to a precision of a millionth of a millimetre,
before they made the long journey to Paranal.
Meanwhile, universities and research institutes across Europe developed sensitive cameras and spectrometers. ESO???s telescopes are built with taxpayers' money. Your money. And so you can take part in the excitement.
For example, ESO???s website is a rich source of astronomical information,
including thousands of beautiful pictures and videos.
Also, ESO produces magazines, press releases,
and video documentaries such as the one you???re watching right now.
And throughout the world,
the European Southern Observatory contributes to exhibitions and science fairs.
Countless ways to participate in the discovery of the cosmos! Did you know that the names of the four VLT telescopes were thought up by a young Chilean girl? 17-year old Jorssy Albanez Castilla suggested the names Antu, Kueyen, Melipal, and Yepun ??? meaning Sun, Moon, Southern Cross and Venus in the Mapuche language. Involving school children and students like Jorssy is important. That???s where ESO???s educational activities come in,
like student exercises and school lectures.
When the planet Venus passed in front of the Sun in 2004,
a special programme was aimed at European students and teachers.
And in 2009, during the International Year of Astronomy,
ESO reached millions of school children and students all over the world. After all, today???s children are tomorrow???s astronomers. But in terms of outreach, nothing beats the Universe itself.
Astronomy is a visual science. Images of galaxies, star clusters and stellar nurseries fire our imagination. When not doing science, ESO's telescopes are sometimes used for the Cosmic Gems Programme ??? taking pictures just for the purpose of education and public outreach.
After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
The general public can even take part in creating these staggering images,
through the Hidden Treasures competitions.
Russian astronomy enthusiast Igor Chekalin won the competition in 2010. His marvellous images are based on real science data.
Member states, industry and universities. By cooperating on all possible levels, ESO has become one of the most successful astronomy organisations in the world.
And through its engagement with the public, you are invited to join the adventure. The Universe is yours to discover. Catching Light For half a century, the European Southern Observatory has showcased the splendour of the Universe. Starlight rains down on the Earth.
Giant telescopes catch the cosmic photons, and feed them to state-of-the-art cameras and spectrographs.
Today???s astronomical images are very different from those of the 1960s.
When ESO began, back in 1962,
astronomers used large photographic glass plates.
Not very sensitive, imprecise, and hard to handle.
What a difference today???s electronic detectors have made!
They catch almost every photon.
The images are available instantaneously. And, most importantly,
they can be processed and analyzed by computer software.
Astronomy has truly become a digital science. ESO telescopes use some of the largest and most sensitive detectors in the world. The VISTA camera has no less than 16 of them, for a total of 67 million pixels.
This huge instrument catches infrared light from cosmic dust clouds, newborn stars and distant galaxies. Liquid helium keeps the detectors at minus 269 degrees.
VISTA takes an inventory of the southern sky, like an explorer surveying an unknown continent. The VLT Survey Telescope is another discovery machine, but this one works at visible wavelengths.
Its camera, called OmegaCAM, is even larger.
32 CCDs team up to produce spectacular images with a mind-boggling 268 million pixels. The field of view is one square degree ??? four times as large as the full Moon. OmegaCAM generates fifty gigabytes of data every night. And these are just gorgeous gigabytes.
Survey telescopes like VISTA and the VST also mine the sky for rare and interesting objects. Astronomers then use the sheer power of the VLT to study these objects in exquisite detail.
Each of the VLT???s four telescopes has its own set of unique instruments, each with its own particular strengths.
Without these instruments, ESO???s giant eye on the sky would be, well, blind.
They have fanciful names like ISAAC, FLAMES, HAWK-I and SINFONI.
Giant high-tech machines, each the size of a small car.
Their purpose: to record the cosmic photons and recover every possible bit of information.
All of the instruments are unique, but some are a little more special than others. For example, NACO here and SINFONI use the VLT???s adaptive optics system.
Lasers produce artificial stars that help astronomers to correct for atmospheric blurring. NACO???s images are as sharp as if they were taken from outer space.
And then there???s MIDI, and AMBER. Two interferometric instruments.
Here, light waves from two or more telescopes are brought together,
as if they were captured by one giant, single mirror.
The result: the sharpest views you can imagine.
But astronomy is not only about taking images. If you???re after the details, you have to dissect the starlight and study its composition.
Spectroscopy is one of astronomy???s most powerful tools.
No wonder ESO boasts some of the world???s most advanced spectrographs,
like the powerful X-Shooter.
Images carry more beauty, but spectra reveal more information.
The atmospheres of exoplanets, orbiting distant stars.
Or newborn galaxies at the edge of the observable Universe. Without spectroscopy, we would just be explorers staring at a beautiful landscape. With spectroscopy, we learn about the landscape???s topography, geology, evolution and composition. And there???s one more thing. Despite its serene beauty, the Universe is a violent place.
Things go bump in the night, and astronomers want to catch each and every event. Massive stars end their lives in titanic supernova explosions.
Some cosmic detonations are so powerful that they briefly outshine their parent galaxy, flooding intergalactic space with invisible, high-energy gamma rays. Small robotic telescopes respond to automatic alerts from satellites.
Within seconds, they swing into position to study the aftermaths of these explosions. Other roboscopes focus on less dramatic events,
such as distant planets that pass in front of their mother stars.
The cosmos is in a constant state of flux. ESO tries not to miss a single heartbeat. Cosmology is the study of the Universe as a whole. Its structure, evolution and origin. Here, catching as much light as possible is of the essence.
These galaxies are so far away that only a handful of photons reach the Earth.
But these photons hold clues to the cosmic past.
They have travelled for billions of years. They paint a picture of the early days of the Universe.
That???s why big telescopes and sensitive detectors are so important.
Over the past fifty years, ESO telescopes have revealed some of the most distant galaxies and quasars
ever observed.
They even helped to uncover the distribution of dark matter, the nature of which is still a mystery.
Who knows what the next fifty years will bring? Finding Life Have you ever wondered about life in the Universe? Inhabited planets orbiting distant stars? Astronomers have ??? for centuries. After all, with so many galaxies, and each with so many stars, how could the Earth be unique? In 1995, Swiss astronomers Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz were the first to discover an exoplanet orbiting a normal star.
Since then, planet hunters have found many hundreds of alien worlds. Large and small, hot and cold, and in a wide variety of orbits.
Now, we???re on the brink of discovering Earth???s twin sisters.
And in the future: a planet with life ??? the Holy Grail of astrobiologists.
The European Southern Observatory plays an important role in the search for exoplanets.
Michel Mayor???s team found hundreds of them from Cerro La Silla,
ESO???s first Chilean foothold.
Here???s the CORALIE spectrograph, mounted on the Swiss Leonhard Euler Telescope. It measures the tiny wobbles of stars, caused by the gravity of orbiting planets.
ESO???s venerable 3.6-metre telescope is also hunting for exoplanets. The HARPS spectrograph is the most accurate in the world.
So far, it has discovered more than 150 planets.
Its biggest trophy: a rich system containing at least five and maybe as many as seven alien worlds.
But there are other ways to find exoplanets.
In 2006, the 1.5-metre Danish telescope helped to discover a distant planet that is just five times more massive than the Earth.
The trick? Gravitational microlensing. The planet and its parent star passed in front of a brighter star in the background, magnifying its image. And in some cases, you can even capture exoplanets on camera.
In 2004, NACO, the adaptive optics camera on the Very Large Telescope, took the first image ever of an exoplanet. The red dot in this image is a giant planet orbiting a brown dwarf star. In 2010, NACO went one step further.
This star is 130 light-years away from Earth.
It is younger and brighter than the Sun, and four planets circle around it in wide orbits.
NACO???s eagle-eyed vision made it possible to measure the light of planet c ??? a gas giant ten times more massive than Jupiter.
Despite the glare of the parent star, the feeble light of the planet could be stretched out into a spectrum, revealing details about the atmosphere.
Today, many exoplanets are discovered when they transit across their parent stars. If we happen to see the planet???s orbit edge-on, it will pass in front of its star every cycle. Thus, tiny, regular brightness dips in the light of a star betray the existence of an orbiting planet.
The TRAPPIST telescope at La Silla will help search for these elusive transits.
Meanwhile, the Very Large Telescope has studied a transiting planet in exquisite detail. Meet GJ1214b, a super-Earth 2.6 times larger than our home planet. During transits, the planet???s atmosphere partly absorbs the light of the parent star. ESO???s sensitive FORS spectrograph revealed that GJ1214b might well be a hot and steamy sauna world.
Gas giants and sauna worlds are inhospitable to life. But the hunt is not over yet.
Soon, the new SPHERE instrument will be installed at the VLT. SPHERE will be able to spot faint planets in the glare of their host stars.
In 2016, the ESPRESSO spectrograph will arrive at the VLT
and greatly surpass the current HARPS instrument.
And ESO???s Extremely Large Telescope, once completed, may well find evidence for alien biospheres.
On Earth, life is abundant. Northern Chile offers its share of condors, vicu??as, vizcachas and giant cacti.
Even the arid soil of the Atacama desert teems with hardy microbes.
We???ve found the building blocks of life in interstellar space.
We???ve learnt that planets are abundant.
Billions of years ago, comets brought water and organic molecules to Earth. Wouldn???t we expect the same thing to happen elsewhere?
Or are we alone? It???s the biggest question ever. And the answer is almost within reach. Building Big Astronomy is big science. It???s a vast Universe out there, and the exploration of the cosmos requires huge instruments. This is the 5-metre Hale reflector on Palomar Mountain. When the European Southern Observatory came into being, fifty years ago, it was the largest telescope in the world.
ESO???s Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal is the state of the art now. As the most powerful observatory in history, it has revealed the full splendour of the Universe in which we live. But astronomers have set their sights on even bigger instruments.
And ESO is realising their dreams. San Pedro de Atacama. Tucked amidst breathtaking scenery and natural wonders,
this picturesque town is home to indigenous Atacame??os
and adventurous backpackers alike. And ESO astronomers and technicians.
Not far from San Pedro, ESO???s first dream machine is taking shape. It???s called ALMA ??? the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array.
ALMA is a joint project of Europe, North America and East Asia. It operates like a giant zoom lens. Close together, the 66 antennas provide a wide-angle view.
But spread apart, they reveal much finer detail over a smaller area of sky.
At submillimetre wavelengths, ALMA sees the Universe in a different light. But what will it reveal? The birth of the very first galaxies in the Universe, in the wake of the Big Bang.
Cold and dusty clouds of molecular gas ??? the stellar nurseries where new suns and planets are born. And: the chemistry of the cosmos. ALMA will track down organic molecules ??? the building blocks of life. Construction of the ALMA antennas is in full swing. Two giant transporters, called Otto and Lore, take the completed antennas up to the Chajnantor Plateau.
At 5000 metres above sea level, the array provides an unprecedented view of the microwave Universe. While ALMA is nearly completed, ESO???s next dream machine is still a few years away. See that mountain over there? That???s Cerro Armazones. Not far from Paranal, it will be home to the largest telescope in the history of mankind. Meet the European Extremely Large Telescope. The world???s biggest eye on the sky.
Sporting a mirror almost forty metres across, the E-ELT simply dwarfs every telescope that preceded it.
Almost eight hundred computer-controlled mirror segments. Complex optics to provide the sharpest possible images.
A dome as tall as a church steeple. The E-ELT is an exercise in superlatives.
But the real wonder, or course, is in the Universe out there. The E-ELT will reveal planets orbiting other stars.
Its spectrographs will sniff the atmospheres of these alien worlds, looking for biosignatures.
Further away, the E-ELT will study individual stars in other galaxies. It???s like meeting the inhabitants of neighbouring cities for the first time. Working as a cosmic time machine, the giant telescope lets us look back billions of years, to learn how everything began. And it may solve the riddle of the accelerating Universe ??? the mysterious fact that galaxies are pushed away from each other faster and faster.
Astronomy is big science, and it???s a science of big mysteries.
Is there life beyond Earth? What's the origin of the Universe? ESO???s new monster telescope will help in our quest to understand. We???re not there yet, but it won???t take long. So what???s next? Well, no one knows. But ESO is ready for the adventure.