In the Atacama
Chilean astronomer leads team in unlocking origins of the universe
Professor Sebastián López and his team of 14 astronomers won 100 observation hours at Very Large Telescope in northern Chile.
Friday, February 03, 2012
Category: Education - Technology
An artist’s rendering of the most distant quasar. (Image courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesser.)
Since opening in 1998, the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) array in Chile’s Atacama desert has become a top destination for leading scientists around the globe, as the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory.
Yet the popularity of the VLT’s four primary telescopes, each with a diameter of 26.9 ft. (8.2 m), has one major disadvantage - few scientists are able to access the telescopes for more than a few hours, making long-term research projects difficult to coordinate.
Enter Sebastián López, associate professor of astronomy at the Universidad de Chile.
López and his team of 14 astronomers from universities and research centers in the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy and Chile were chosen as one of the winners in the Large Programme competition run by the ESO at their Paranal Observatory.
It’s an honor to be given five or ten hours on the VTL for a study, López told local press, making their selection by the ESO all the more important. His team was awarded 100 observation hours to observe the universe from an early age and learn about its formation and how material was distributed in the cosmos.
“The truth is that very few Chileans have been accepted to these programs and they are very uncommon,” López said.
The team of astronomers, which includes three of López’s colleagues at the Universidad de Chile, seek “to understand the why, the how, and the how much of our current universe,” López told La Tercera. They work in the so-called “intergalactic medium,” studying materials that are found between different galaxies.
Quasars, extremely luminous and remote celestial objects, are key subjects for this study of the universe, as they contain massive black holes and may have played a crucial role in the early stages of the universe when the first stars and galaxies were formed.
“Pieces of the puzzle are still missing to prove theories about the formation and distribution of the universe and we’re going after those pieces,” López said.
The astronomers will employ cutting-edge technology in the form of the X-Shooter spectrogram, which is used to identify the properties of rare, unusual or unidentified sources, including distant quasars, galaxies and nebulae. They expect to have results ready in about two years.
Chile’s skies have long been praised for their privileged views of the heavens above. The northern deserts boast a remarkably clear atmosphere and over 300 days a year of dry weather, making the region one of the world’s best for astronomical observations.
“Chile will host about 70 percent of all observations in astronomy,” said Dr. Subra Suresh, president of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the United States, on his first official visit to Chile in January.
Governments around the world have invested billions in developing sophisticated telescopes and technology in the north, and the ESO has chosen the Atacama desert as the location for the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), which will be the world’s biggest optic telescope when it opens for operations in 2020.