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Another Perfect Day at Paranal
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Another Perfect Day at Paranal

January 5, 2011
Rolling red hills stretch out below the exceptionally clear blue sky that is typical of ESO's Paranal Observatory. Although the telescope domes close at dawn, and nothing seems to move on the surface of this barren desert, the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) never rests. Since early morning, a team of engineers and technicians has been working hard to prepare the telescopes and instruments for another "perfect night".

The 2600-meter-high Cerro Paranal stands out at the center of this panoramic view, taken looking towards the south. This flattened mountaintop is home to the VLT, the world's most advanced ground-based optical and near infrared astronomical facility. The VLT has four 8.2-meter Unit Telescopes (UTs), plus four 1.8-meter Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs). In this picture, only two of the UT enclosures, together with the smaller 2.6-meter VLT Survey Telescope (VST) are visible.

To the right of Cerro Paranal, the sea of clouds that typically covers the coast of the Pacific Ocean — only 12 km away — is visible in the background. The cold oceanic stream typically keeps the thermal inversion layer of the atmosphere below an altitude of 1500 meters, making this remote area of the Chilean Atacama Desert in the II Region of Chile one of the driest sites on Earth and a perfect window on the Universe. The atmosphere here is extremely dry and clear, and has very low turbulence, offering the most suitable conditions for optical and near-infrared astronomical observations.

For this reason, the 3060-meter-high Cerro Armazones, located just some 20 km east of Paranal, was selected as the site for the future European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). With a primary mirror 42 meters in diameter, the E-ELT will be the world's largest eye on the sky.

This photograph was taken from a neighboring mountain, home of the 4.1-meter Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA). VISTA started operations at the end of 2009 and is the most recent telescope to be added to the roster at ESO's Paranal Observatory. VISTA is the largest survey telescope in the world.


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