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RDT info logoMagazine on European research Special issue - February 2007   

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Title  The fascination of the cosmos

Even though the largest intergovernmental organisation (1) in the realm of astronomy and astrophysics is European, its telescopes survey the stars from the mountains of the Atacama desert in Chile, a region where the lack of humidity in the atmosphere allows the skies to be observed with a clarity recognised as the best on the planet. Established in 1962, ESO (the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere) was the driving force behind the construction of two astronomical observation platforms at an altitude of almost 2 500m: La Silla (opened in 1969) and Paranal (operational since 1998).

The Tarantula Nebula, situated in the Large Magellanic Cloud, taken by the VLT.
The Tarantula Nebula, situated in the Large Magellanic Cloud, taken by the VLT.
Designed and constructed by ESO, the observation and detection equipment installed at these two sites is absolutely unique. The most recent jewel in ESO’s crown is composed of the four elements of the famous ‘Very Large Telescope’ (VLT), installed at Paranal. Thanks to a large number of instruments and the use of innovative procedures like adaptive optics and optical interferometry, and its unique operating method, the VLT allows astronomers to carry out observations of incomparably high quality.

The headquarters of the scientific organisation are at Garching, near Munich in Germany. It employs a total of 570 individuals in Europe and South America. Every year more than 1 700 requests for observation time come into ESO from Europe and beyond. In 2005, more than 600 groundbreaking studies carried out using the facilities at the Chilean observatories were published in scholarly journals.

Science that looks to the future

Astronomy and astrophysics are sciences which continually look towards the future. Since 2003, construction has been ongoing at the new Llano de Chajnantor site in Chile, at an altitude of 5 000m, which will be home to the largest array of telescopes ever built. The project, known as the ‘Atacama Large Millimeter Array’ (ALMA), is the fruit of collaboration between the member countries of ESO, the United States, Canada, Japan, Taiwan and Chile. This platform will be equipped with a veritable forest of mobile dish antennae, each one 12m in diameter, which will ‘view’ the heavens using frequencies ranging from 30 GHz to 950 GHz. The computing capacity used to collate and process all the observation data will be capable of conducting 16 000 billion operations per second (1.6x1016). ALMA will allow astronomers to investigate the birth and demise of stars and planets, and to study the most distant of galaxies.

The organisation’s next project, the ‘European Extremely Large Telescope’ (E-ELT) – a telescope with a diameter of around 30-60m – has been the subject of intense preparations within ESO for some years now. This new telescope is expected to be operational some time in the next decade.

An inexhaustible source of images

The activities at ESO generate a constant flow of sensational astronomical images. The organisation’s website regularly features accounts of new discoveries and pictures of stunning cosmic ‘landscapes’.

Astronomy has an immense capacity to amaze and fascinate – a fascination which should be shared. It reveals the original matrix from which our solar system, ‘our’ Earth and our life burst forth. ESO therefore tries to be as open as possible to the public, keeping the press informed of all developments, holding open days, and running original competitions for young people throughout the world. Its educational services also produce superb teaching materials and run special training courses for teachers each year.

(1) ESO has twelve member countries: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and UK.

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Feature 1 2 3 3
  The fascination of the cosmos
  The black hole saga
  The message of the gamma-ray bursts
  The search for exoplanets

  • www.eso.org

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