ESO captures an Asteroid Hiding behind a Sparkling Spiral Galaxy

ESO captures an Asteroid Hiding behind a Sparkling Spiral Galaxy

The Very Large Telescope, located in Chile, has captured outstanding scenes in a spiral galaxy called NGC 3981.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) is an intergovernmental research organization for ground-based astronomy. A total of 15 countries contribute to ESO. It has provided outstanding research facilities to the astronomers which enable them to explore the southern sky in the best possible way. Walter Baade and Jan Oort presented the idea that European astronomers need to develop a common large observatory to observe the research objects that can be viewed only from the Southern Hemisphere because all the reflector telescopes with an aperture of 2 meters or more were located in the Northern Hemisphere, at that time.

This historic event took place at the Leiden Observatory in the spring of 1953. Primarily due to the efforts of Oort, an ESO declaration was signed by the astronomers from 6 European countries at the beginning of the next year. ESO was officially inaugurated by five countries (Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, and the Netherlands) in 1962. Otto Heckmann was the first Director General of the organization. Originally, the telescopes were to be set in South Africa but tests done between 1955 and 1963 indicated that the Andes was the suitable option. Consequently, Chile was finalized as the site for the observatory.

Denmark was the first country to join ESO after its commencement in 1962. It became a member in 1967. After a substantial gap, Switzerland and Italy were the next entrants as they joined the observatory in 1981 and 1982, respectively. The organization had to wait for more than 18 years for its next member as Portugal joined the alliance in 2000. After that, a lot of European nations including the United Kingdom, Finland, Spain, the Czech Republic, and Austria amalgamated with ESO one after another. Poland united with this observatory in 2014 while Ireland is the most recent member of ESO which joined the alliance earlier this year.

ESO has certainly come a long way since its creation. Some of the world’s largest and most technologically advanced telescopes belong to this organization. One of its earliest telescopes, the 3.6m New Technology Telescope is considered a pioneer in the use of active optics. Similarly, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array has the ability to observe the universe in millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. It was completed in March 2013 and is still the largest ground-based astronomy project of the world. Likewise, the Very Large Telescope (VLT) having 4 individual 8.2m telescopes in addition to 4 smaller auxiliary telescopes is a masterpiece in itself.

VLT has a hectic observation schedule and it hardly gets any time off. Having said that, cloudy or moonlit skies do offer some temporary moments of respite for the telescope. Generally, the observatory team tries to inspect beautiful and interesting objects of the southern sky during these breaks. The most recent of such explorations was performed in May 2018 when the VLT looked into the NGC 3981, a spiral galaxy which is 65 million light-years from Earth.

The image taken by the telescope shows a dense disk of young stars and spiral arms of material. The angle of the galaxy exposed its bright center (which hosts a supermassive black hole) to the highly-sensitive telescopes of the VLT. The officials at ESO believe that the outward stretching of the arms may have been caused by a run-in with another galaxy. Our own galaxy, Milky Way, is also visible in the foreground. In addition to all that, there was a massive surprise for all the astronomers associated with this observation, an asteroid. The path of the asteroid is visible, in multiple colors, near the top of the image slightly towards the right of center. The variations in color are due to the knitting of the images.

FORS2, an instrument on VLT, gathered all the versions and combined them to give the final image. It traced the path of the asteroid during each of these exposures. A representative of ESO explained that the individual length of these exposures can also be seen in the lengths of the colored streaks. According to him, blue one lasted for 1,225 seconds which was followed by the green exposure (about 360 seconds). The red one was the next with a total length of 300 seconds. Last but not the least, an exposure for Hydrogen Alpha Light (deep red) was captured for 1,080 seconds. The following video shows what the VLT found.

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