Armazones Chile to be the Site for the 42 meter European Extremely Large Telescope?

Question: Where are the night skies always dark, cloud-free 360 days a year, bone-dry, and orbiting 3.5 km above sea level?
Answer: Armazones Mountain, Atacama desert, Chile.
Question: Who wants to go live there?
Answer: The European Extremely-Large Telescope (E-ELT)!

“We are talking about the biggest telescope in the world, the biggest for a long time to come. That means we have to choose the best spot. Chile has a superb location. It’s the best in the world, there’s no doubt,” the European Southern Observatory’s astronomer, Massimo Tarenghi, told AFP. He is one of four astronomers – two Chileans, an Italian (Tarenghi) and a German – who were in the desert this week to evaluate its suitability compared to the main other contender: the Spanish isle of La Palma in the Canary Islands off western Africa.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental astronomical research agency that already has three facilities operating in the Atacama desert, including the Very Large Telescope array in the town of Paranal which is currently considered Europe’s foremost observatory.

Work on the E-ELT is to begin in December 2011 and cost 90 million euros (120 million dollars) … once a decision is made on the site, which will be as early as March this year.

When complete, the E-ELT will be “the world’s biggest eye on the sky,” according to the ESO, which hopes it will “address many of the most pressing unsolved questions in astronomy.”

The E-ELT is likely to be as revolutionary in the field of astronomy as Galileo’s telescope 400 years ago that determined that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the center of our universe, according to the European agency based in Munich, Germany. The German astronomer in Chile, Wolfgang Gieren, waxed happily about the possibilities of the future telescope. “In no more than 15 years we could have the first good-resolution spectra of planets outside our universe that are the same size of Earth and see if we can detect signs of life,” he said.

One of the Chilean astronomers, Mario Harmuy, said the Armazones provided an ideal location. “Several things come together here. The cold Humboldt Current, which passes by Chile’s coast, means that there is a high pressure center in the Pacific that deflects high clouds and prevents cover over this part of the continent,” he said. “To the east, the high Andes mountains prevent humidity from moving in from the Atlantic with clouds. The higher you are, the less humidity there is, and thus the light from the stars go through less of the atmosphere and is distorted less when it hits the telescope.” To boot, the Chilean location is free of the storms that hit the Canary Islands and the Sahara, he said.

Tarneghi added that the ESO’s existing Paranal observatory nearby also meant that much of the ground infrastructure was already in place.

Chile’s government was equally enthusiastic about hosting the E-ELT. Gabriel Rodriguez, in charge of the foreign ministry’s science and technology division, said Chile was ready to cede the 600 hectares (1,500 acres) needed for the project. The government is to submit its offer to the ESO next Monday, with a decision expected early March.

The Italian astronomer cautioned that despite Chile’s obvious advantages, the tender had to be weighed carefully for all its aspects. “Neither any of us nor the ESO know what the final decision will be. We need to receive the Chilean and Spanish proposals and evaluate factors of operation, work and production costs,” Tarenghi said.

The other Chilean astronomer, Maria Teresa Ruiz, remained fired up at the potential of the new instrument. The “surface area of this telescope is bigger than all the others in Chile combined, which will allow us to explore things in the universe that we can’t even imagine today,” she said.

Source: AFP

New VISTA of Orion

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Oh-oh-oh Orion! The new VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) infrared survey telescope has used its huge field of view to show the full splendor of the Orion Nebula. With its infrared eyes, it has peered deeply into dusty regions that are normally hidden to expose the curious behavior of the very active young stars buried there.

VISTA is the latest addition to ESO’s Paranal Observatory. It is the largest survey telescope in the world and is dedicated to mapping the sky at infrared wavelengths. The large (4.1-metre) mirror, wide field of view and very sensitive detectors make VISTA a unique instrument. This dramatic new image of the Orion Nebula illustrates VISTA’s remarkable powers.

The Orion Nebula is about 1,350 light-years from Earth. Although spectacular when seen through an ordinary telescope, what can be seen using visible light is only a small part of a cloud of gas in which stars are forming. Most of the action is deeply embedded in dust clouds and to see what is really happening astronomers need to use telescopes with detectors sensitive to the longer wavelength radiation that can penetrate the dust. VISTA has imaged the Orion Nebula at wavelengths about twice as long as can be detected by the human eye.

Four highlights of the new VISTA image of Orion. Credit: ESO

On the upper-left, the central region of VISTA’s view of the Orion Nebula is shown, centered on the four dazzling stars of the Trapezium. A rich cluster of young stars can be seen here that is invisible in normal, visible light images. In the lower-right panel the part of the nebula to the north of the center is shown. Here there are many young stars embedded in the dust clouds that are only apparent because their infrared glow can penetrate the dust and be detected by the VISTA camera. Many outflows, jets and other interactions from young stars are apparent, seen in the infrared glow from molecular hydrogen and showing up as red blobs. On the upper-right, a region to the west of center is shown. Here the fierce ultraviolet light from the Trapezium is sculpting the gas clouds into curious wavy shapes. A distant edge-on spiral galaxy is also seen shining right through the nebula. At the lower-left a region south of the center is shown. Each extract covers a region of sky about nine arcminutes across.

All these features are of great interest to astronomers studying the birth and youth of stars.

Source: ESO

Pretty Picture of the Week: NGC 3603

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This magnificent image of the giant stellar nursery surrounding NGC 3603 was taken by the Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal, Chile. This nebula is a starburst region, a huge star-making factory where stars form frantically from the nebula’s billowing clouds of gas and dust. It is located 22,000 light-years away from the Sun, and is the closest region of this kind known in our galaxy. Thousands of stars inhabit this region, with most having masses similar to that of our sun. But other stars are some of the most spectacular and massive stars around. In fact, one star, NGC 3603 A1, is the most massive star ever “weighed.” Several blue supergiant stars crowd into a volume of less than a cubic light-year, along with three so-called Wolf-Rayet stars — extremely bright and massive stars that will do the supernova gig relatively soon. The Bad Astronomer tells it way better than I, so go check out his gigantisized blog post.


Source: ESO

Extra-Galactic Whopper Black Hole Breaks Distance Record

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Not only is a newly found black huge, it also is the most far-away stellar-mass black hole ever detected. “This is the most distant stellar-mass black hole ever weighed, and it’s the first one we’ve seen outside our own galactic neighborhood, the Local Group,” said Paul Crowther, from the University of Sheffield. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope, astronomers peered six million light-years from Earth into a spiral galaxy called NGC 300 and found a black hole with a mass above fifteen times that of the Sun. This makes it the second most massive stellar-mass black hole ever found. But soon it could get bigger. The black hole appears to have a nearby partner, a massive Wolf–Rayet star which likely will become a black hole itself, and the two black holes could merge into an even more massive object.

This image obtained with the FORS2 instrument on the VLT is centred on the position of the black hole. The image covers a field of view of about 2x2 arcminutes, or about 4000 light-years at the distance of NGC 300. Credit: ESO/P. Crowther

In 2007, an X-ray source in NGC 300 was discovered with the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory and the Swift Observatory. “We recorded periodic, extremely intense X-ray emission, a clue that a black hole might be lurking in the area,” said team member Stefania Carpano from ESA.

Subsequent observations with the VLT’s FORS2 instrument (a visual and near UV FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph) confirmed their hunch, but also showed that the black hole and the Wolf–Rayet star circled each other every 32 hours. The astronomers also found that the black hole is stripping matter away from the star as they orbit each other.

“This is indeed a very ‘intimate’ couple,” said collaborator Robin Barnard. “How such a tightly bound system has been formed is still a mystery.”

Artists impression of the black hole and Wolf-Rayet star in NGC 300. Credit: ESO

Stellar-mass black holes are the extremely dense, final remnants of the collapse of very massive stars. These black holes have masses up to around twenty times the mass of the Sun, as opposed to supermassive black holes, found in the center of most galaxies, which can weigh a million to a billion times as much as the Sun. So far, around 20 stellar-mass black holes have been found.

Only one other system of this type has previously been seen, but other systems comprising a black hole and a companion star are not unknown to astronomers. Based on these systems, the astronomers see a connection between black hole mass and galactic chemistry.

“We have noticed that the most massive black holes tend to be found in smaller galaxies that contain less ‘heavy’ chemical elements,” said Crowther. “Bigger galaxies that are richer in heavy elements, such as the Milky Way, only succeed in producing black holes with smaller masses.”

Astronomers believe that a higher concentration of heavy chemical elements influences how a massive star evolves, increasing how much matter it sheds, resulting in a smaller black hole when the remnant finally collapses.

In less than a million years, it will be the Wolf–Rayet star’s turn to go supernova and become a black hole. “If the system survives this second explosion, the two black holes will merge, emitting copious amounts of energy in the form of gravitational waves as they combine,” said Crowther.

But this won’t happen for a few billion years. “Our study does however show that such systems might exist, and those that have already evolved into a binary black hole might be detected by probes of gravitational waves, such as LIGO or Virgo.”

Paper: NGC 300 1-X is a Wolf-Rayet/Black Hole Binary

Source: ESO

First (of many) Gorgeous Pictures from the New VISTA

Well, the WISE infrared all-sky satellite may be delayed until Monday, but the new infrared southern sky survey telescope VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) right here on Earth has gone online and released its first few gorgeous pictures.

This first one is of the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), a star-forming region in the constellation Orion. The bright star in the image is the blue supergiant Alnitak, which is the easternmost star in Orion’s belt. Also shown is the reflected glow of NGC 2023 just below center, and the outline of the Horsehead Nebula in the far lower right (it looks a little different than you might normally see it because VISTA is operating in the visible and near-infrared). This image is about half the area of the full VISTA field of view, and is measures about 40 x 50 arcminutes – that’s about half a square degree on the sky , or twice the area of the full Moon.

The VISTA telescope is operated by the European Southern Observatory, and is part of their Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile. It’s sitting just one peak over from the Very Large Telescope, also operated by the ESO. The main mirror on VISTA is a whopping 4.1 meters across (13.5 feet), and has 16 different detectors and a 3-ton camera for a total output of 67 million pixels. This allows for some very detailed images.

Since it’s a near-infrared telescope, it detects heat, and would detect its own heat signature, so the camera is housed in a cooler that keeps it at a chilly -200 degrees Celsius (-328 degrees Fahrenheit), and it’s sealed with the largest infrared-transparent window ever made. VISTA is charged with surveying the southern sky in the visible and near-infrared, and it will do so at a sensitivity that is forty times that of other infrared sky surveys, such as the Two Micron All-Sky Survey. It will be taking in enormous amounts of data to be processed: 300 gigabytes each night, or more than 100 terabytes per year.

Here’s a few more links to the first images released from the observatory to whet your appetite. Click on the links for a zoomable, hi-resolution image. You can be sure to see more like these in the future!

The Fornax Galaxy Cluster. Image Credit: ESO

The Fornax Galaxy Cluster, including the barred-spiral galaxy NGC 1365 in the lower right, and the elliptical galaxy NGC 1399 to the left of it.A mosaic image of over one million stars near the center of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius. Image Credit: ESO

This image shows a dusty region with over one million stars near the heart of the Milky Way. The dust normally obscures the stars in visible light, but these stars are visible with the infrared eyes of VISTA.

Source: ESO

It’s a Bird! It’s Tinker Bell! It’sThree Galaxies!

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There once was a galaxy known as ESO 593-IG 008. It was thought to be a relatively mild-mannered galaxy, even though scientists believed it was a collision of two different galaxies; one a barred spiral and the other an irregular galaxy. But now, an international team of astronomers has discovered that it actually is a stunning rare case of three interacting galaxies, with the third galaxy forming stars at a frantic rate.

Using adaptive optics on the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers were able to see through the all-pervasive dust clouds of the object that has been dubbed as “The Bird” because of its resemblance to a winged creature. With the adaptive optics of what’s called the NACO instrument, very fine details were able to be resolved.

“Examples of mergers of three galaxies of roughly similar sizes are rare,” says Petri Vaisanen, lead author of the paper which will appear in the journal of the Royal Astronomical Society. “Only the near-infrared VLT observations made it possible to identify the triple merger nature of the system in this case.”

NACO is the combination of NAOS – Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System that is equipped with both visible and infrared sensors, and CONICA, a Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph.

The Anatomy of a Bird.  Image Credit:  ESO
Looking like a bird or a cosmic Tinker Bell, the NACO images show two unmistakable galaxies that form the body and wings of “The Bird.” Astronomers were surprised with the new images that identify a third, clearly separate component that forms the head. This irregular, yet fairly massive galaxy is forming stars violently, at a rate of nearly 200 solar masses per year. It appears to be the major source of infrared luminosity in the system, even though it is the smallest of the three galaxies. The other two galaxies appear to be at a quieter stage of their interaction-induced star formation history. The object is 650 million light years distant but it is quite large with the “wings” alone extending more than 100,000 light-years, or the size of our own Milky Way.

Subsequent optical spectroscopy with the new Southern African Large Telescope, and archive mid-infrared data from the NASA Spitzer space observatory, confirmed the separate nature of the ‘head’, but also added further surprises. The ‘head’ and major parts of the ‘Bird’ are moving apart at more than 400 km/s (1.4 million km/h). Observing such high velocities is very rare in merging galaxies.

“The Bird” belongs to the prestigious family of luminous infrared galaxies, with an infrared luminosity nearly one thousand billion times that of the Sun. This family of galaxies has long been thought to signpost important events in galaxy evolution, such as mergers of galaxies, which in turn trigger bursts of star formation, and may eventually lead to the formation of a single elliptical galaxy.

The galaxy is also designated as IRAS 19115-2124. The ESO is more formally known as the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere.

Original News Source: ESO Press Release: