Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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Paranal and the Very Large Telescope

During the middle of July I headed out to Chile to visit the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, and to use one of the 8m Unit Telescopes for the first time as a visiting astronomer. Most of the data from the VLT, and all the data I’ve had until now, is taken in Service Mode – someone makes the observations for you and sends you the results. So, despite having had a fair bit of data from the VLT, I had never actually visited. Many other people have, including James Bond, who got to blow up the accommodation block for the telescope in the movie Quantum of Solace.

The trip involves flying to Santiago, the capital of Chile, and then another flight up the coast to Antofagasta, a port of the Pacific coast, at the edge of the Atacama desert, followed by a two hour drive through the desert, past mines and ore refineries, then up into the mountains and to the observatory itself.

The first thing I got to see when I got there was the Residencia, which is really quite something.

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This is the building Bond blew up. Fortunately he left us astronomers somewhere to sleep. He also left a couple of plastic rocks that he hid behind in the movie. There aren’t any real large rocks in the area, so they had to make a few, which they then left behind.

The outside of the residencia is actually less impressive than the interior, which wasn’t shown in the movie. The key thing to remember about the place is that it is in the middle of a very dry desert, so there isn’t much water vapour in the atmosphere. That isn’t conducive to good human health, so the architects decided to do something about it, and built not only a swimming pool inside the building, but also added a small jungle.

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There is also a second small forest which was just outside my room.

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The telescopes themselves are also rather imnoressive. This is a view from the Residencia of the observatory ‘platform’ at the top of Cero Paranal, where the top of the mountain was removed, and four 8m telescopes, the 2.5m VLT Survey telescope, and the auxiliary telescopes of the VLT Interferometer were built.

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Up close one of the unit telescopes looks like this:

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and the inside is like this:

ImageThe telescopes are actually so big, and fill the interior of the domes so well, that it’s very difficult to get over the feeling of size that you have when inside the domes. They also move completely silently – a sign of very high quality engineering.

The overall impression I got from my visit to the VLT is that it is a very well run operation, that knows it’s one of the best observatories in the world, if not the best, and it offers a world class service to its users.

I got some great data, but that’s another post, since there’s a lot more work to be done reducing and analysing it.


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Earth Size Planet Discovered!

The astronomy twitter feeds are buzzing with news that an Earth sized planet has been discovered in orbit around Alpha Centauri B, one of the closest stars to the Sun. You can read more about this in the press release from ESO. To find such a planet in about the only place near enough for us to find it using current instrumentation is a huge boost for the possibilities of further earth-sized planets being out there.

But this isn’t a place you’ll want to visit for your holidays. It’s closer to its parent star than Mercury is to the Sun, so it’s going to be really toasty warm.

The discovery was made using the HARP instrument on the ESO 3.6m telescope, using observations that took place over a period of 4 years. It’s testament to what can be done with what today is a small telescope.

You can also read more about this spectacular result in the issue of Nature coming out on 17th October.

I’m going to be lecturing on planets and exoplanets next term. It’s really cool to see new results like this forcing me to update the lectures. What further new surprises are going to arrive before I have to give this course?