Archive for January 5, 2012

Astronomical Imaging Propelled to New Extremes

January 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Gemini’s next-generation adaptive optics system produces highest-resolution with largest field-of-view ever captured from the ground using laser guide star technology.

For images and additional technical background information, see:

On December 16, 2011, a decade of hard work culminated at the Gemini South telescope in Chile, when a next-generation adaptive optics (AO) system produced its first ultra-sharp wide field image. The first target image showed a portion of a dense cluster of stars called NGC 288. This first light image reveals details at nearly the theoretical limit of Gemini’s large 8-meter mirror over an unprecedented large patch of the night sky.

The crispness of the first-light image clearly demonstrates the potential of the system, which is poised to provide astronomers with a powerful new tool for the study of a wide range of phenomena: from black holes at the centers of galaxies to the life histories of stars.

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ESO Celebrates 50 Years of Reaching New Heights in Astronomy

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The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in the world. The anniversary year is an opportunity to look back at ESO’s history, celebrate its scientific and technological achievements and look forward to its next ambitious programmes. ESO is planning several exciting activities during the year.

On 5 October 1962, representatives from five European countries — Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden — signed the ESO Convention in Paris. Their signatures represented a formal commitment to establish the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, today commonly referred to as the European Southern Observatory.

ESO’s 50th anniversary comes in the middle of the most exciting period for European and international ground-based astronomy. ESO has come a long way since it was established in 1962. Fifty years later, ESO is now a leader in the astronomical research community as the most productive astronomical observatory in the world,” says Tim de Zeeuw, ESO’s Director General.

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Doomed Mars Probe Photographed

January 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Russia’s Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, has been stranded in Earth orbit since a main engine failure in early November. The spacecraft is now sinking back into Earth’s atmosphere, with re-entry expected in mid-January. “On New Year’s Day, I traveled to the French Riviera (850km from home) to record Phobos-Grunt’s last passage over France,” says astrophotographer Thierry Legault.

“It appears that the satellite is moving backwards with its solar panels deployed but not receiving the sunlight,” notes Legault. “This may explain why Phobos-Grunt had no energy to communicate with Earth.” An 80-second video shows the probe soaring almost directly above Legault’s observing site on the Plateau de Calern. “At the scale of the video the satellite would cross your screen in about 1/30s,” he says.

While a telescope is required to see the outlines of the spacecraft, the human eye alone is sufficient to see Phobos-Grunt as a speck of light in the night sky. On high passes, it glows almost as brightly as a first magnitude star. Check SpaceWeather’s online Satellite Tracker or your smartphone for flyby times.

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A Boost for European Radio Astronomy

January 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Credit: ESO/ALMA (; SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

Credit: ESO/ALMA (; SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

The European astronomy collaboration RadioNet has been granted 9.5 million Euros by the European Commission to fund its latest program,RadioNet3, for the years 2012 to 2015. RadioNet is responsible for improving the capabilities of, and enhancing access to, major radio astronomy facilities in Europe and beyond. This third iteration not only continues the two preceding RadioNet projects, but also takes a leap forward in stimulating new activities in research and development for the existing radio infrastructures, in synergy with telescopes of the future. These include the recently opened Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (ALMA) and – upcoming in the next decade – the biggest radio telescope in the world – the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn is leading the RadioNet3 consortium of 27 partners. It includes all major European radio institutions, as well as partners South Korea, Australia and South Africa.


New Computer Model Explains Lakes and Storms on Titan

January 5, 2012 1 comment

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is an intriguing, alien world that’s covered in a thick atmosphere with abundant methane. With an average surface temperature of a brisk -300 degrees Fahrenheit (about 90 kelvins) and a diameter just less than half of Earth’s, Titan boasts methane clouds and fog, as well as rainstorms and plentiful lakes of liquid methane. It’s the only place in the solar system, other than Earth, that has large bodies of liquid on its surface.

The origins of many of these features, however, remain puzzling to scientists. Now, researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have developed a computer model of Titan’s atmosphere and methane cycle that, for the first time, explains many of these phenomena in a relatively simple and coherent way.

In particular, the new model explains three baffling observations of Titan. One oddity was that Titan’s methane lakes tend to cluster around its poles and that there are more lakes in the northern hemisphere than in the south.

Secondly, the areas at low latitudes, near Titan’s equator, are known to be dry, lacking lakes and regular precipitation. But when the Huygens probe landed on Titan in 2005, it saw channels carved out by flowing liquid-possibly runoff from rain. And in 2009, Caltech researchers discovered raging storms that may have brought rain to this supposedly dry region.

Finally, scientists uncovered a third mystery when they noticed that clouds observed over the past decade—during summer in Titan’s southern hemisphere—cluster around southern middle and high latitudes.

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