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As Time Goes By
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As Time Goes By

August 16, 2011
This dynamic long-exposure photograph shows ESO's Very Large Telescope in action, as well as revealing the rotation of the Earth in space.

Just as the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so do the stars appear to slowly march across the sky. Their leisurely pace is imperceptible to a casual observer, but you can test the effect for yourself: on the next clear night note the position of a bright star, and then check again a few hours later. The change is not caused by the motion of the stars themselves, but rather the rotation of the Earth.

Long-exposure photography is the ideal way to capture this motion. A camera is set up on a tripod, and the shutter opened to the sky. Normal snapshots gather light for a fraction of a second, but these special images need starlight to pour onto them for much longer, like a bucket collecting rainwater.

To obtain this image, ESO Photo Ambassador Gianluca Lombardi collected light for a total of 25 minutes. This may not seem like a long time, but the streaks of light in the night sky tell a different story. The Earth has rotated so that the pin-pricks of starlight have become star trails. In the top left, the trails form arcs around the southern celestial pole, which is outside the photograph. The ghostly traces of someone walking across the Paranal observing platform can also be seen.

Many familiar and outstanding pictures of astronomical objects are obtained using the same principle of accumulating light over a long period of time to build up an image. It is common for telescopes to gather light for several hours to make a single picture. This brings with it an additional challenge: the Earth rotating means that the telescope must also move to keep track of its target.


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