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Europe's ESO celebrates 50 years of major observatory

Paul Sutherland, Feature writer
Oct 6, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—Yesterday was notable for being the golden anniversary of two great institutions - The Beatles and the James Bond movies. But the day that saw the release of Love Me Do and the premiere of Dr No is notable for a third major event - the establishment of the European Southern Observatory.

It was on October 5, 1962, that five European countries - Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden - signed a convention that founded ESO to observe the riches of the southern sky. Indeed it claims to be the most productive observatory on Earth. Today the organisation has become one of the world's leading such temples to the stars, complementing the work of the observatory on La Palma watching the northern sky.

ESO operates three major sites in Chile, at La Silla, Paranal, which is home to the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and Chajnantor where ALMA is producing cutting-edge observations of the Universe.

To mark its 50th birthday yesterday, ESO organised a competition on Twitter to give a member of the public a chance to take charge of the 8.2 metre telescopes and point them at a target of their choice.

Winner was writer Brigitte Bailleul, from France, whose reward was to be flown out to Chile to visit ESO sites in the Atacama Desert - a trip that this Sen writer enjoyed a year ago - and to take an image with the VLT.

Fittingly, considering the shared anniversary, she stayed at the futuristic astronomer's residence at Paranal which was used as a spectacular location for Bond film Quantum Of Solace.

Aided by a professional astronomer at the VLT control room, Brigitte pointed the mighty telescope towards a gas cloud in deep space dubbed Thor's Helmet Nebula. Production of the image, the most detailed ever taken of the nebula, was broadcast live over the Internet as part of a 6-hour webcast from ESO to mark the anniversary.

The object, also known as NGC 2359, is a planetary nebula lying in the constellation of Canis Major. It lies around 15,000 light-years away from Earth and is more than 30 light-years wide. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with planets. The "helmet" is a cosmic bubble, blown off by the bright, massive star at its centre.

Commenting on her prize observation on Twitter, Brigitte said: It's a truly amazing experience and I'm immensely grateful to ESO for giving me this chance."

VLT telescopes

VLT observatory telescopes photographed by the writer. Credit: Paul Sutherland

The webcast was just one of several events organised across the 15 states that are now members of ESO - Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Latest ESO instrument is the revolutionary ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, a collection of dishes 5,000 metres high on the Chajnantor Plain. And plans are advanced to build the world's biggest optical observatory, the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, on a mountaintop called Cerres Armazones.

Remembering the founding of ESO, its Director General Tim de Zeeuw said: "Fifty years later, the original hopes of the five founding members have not only become reality, but have been greatly surpassed. ESO has fully taken up the challenge of its mission to design, build and operate the most powerful ground-based observing facilities on the planet."

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ESO's video to mark the 50th anniversary