Source Type: Images
The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope took this stunning photograph of the so-called Sombrero galaxy (Messier 104), a spiral galaxy in the constellation Virgo. The bulge in the middle of this rotating galaxy is composed mostly of mature stars while the disc is made of various gases, dusts, and stars. The fact that the VLT can take such a detailed image of this 50 million light year away galaxy is a testament to both the advanced technology at the ESO's observatory at La Silla and the clarity of Chilean skies.
Just as South America's natural resources like metals and plants have long been exploited by foreign powers, so too have Chile's skies become a highly valued and sought-after scientific commodity. This may seem strange, as the sky is one of the few natural wonders that all nations share, but the exceptional clarity of Chilean stars and the plethora of advanced telescopes that have been built to observe them have made Chile an international hotspot for advanced astronomy.
Chilean themselves have had mixed success in benefiting from its astronomical advantages. The Universidad de Chile is the country's main native astronomical institution, one that has been able to benefit greatly from the wealth of observation time Chileans are given at U.S. observatories and (only recently) at the ESO. Indeed, the number of Chilean astronomers has not grown much in the last forty years (it has been around thirty since the 1960s), giving each of these scientists far more time on some of the world's best telescopes than more senior astronomers from the U.S. and Europe. Although many scientists have suggested that Chile needs to develop its national astronomic infrastructure to ensure this (very expensive) time is well spent, Chilean astronomers have been able to use their time to conduct studies that require longer hours of observation than many astronomers can afford to use. For example, Maria-Teresa Ruiz surveyed the skies and found several cool dwarfs, stars that emit little light and thus it takes many hours to find them.
Photographs like this are dramatic examples that demonstrate how new astronomical technology, especially optical telescopes, can literally change how we see the universe. More so than most other sciences, new technology drives the advancement of astronomy and facilitates the discovery of things that people could not possibly know without their help. As stargazing technologies get better and better and we find more amazing heavenly bodies in the distant reaches of space, few can help being struck by the sheer wonder of the universe. The fact that this galaxy is only one of about 130 billion in the universe, and each of these galaxies has about 400 billion stars (making an estimated 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe) makes it clear that we still know almost nothing about the cosmos. Just like the VLT's photographs, modern cosmology remains largely a shot in the dark, and astronomers are just as fascinated by its mysteries as the Maya or Bororo Indians.
References: Appenzeller, Tim. "Astronomers Struggle to Keep Up With Their Opportunities." In Science, New Series, Vol. 267, No. 5199, (Feb. 10, 1995), pp. 819-820.
Hammond, Allen L. "Big Astronomy in Chile: The Southern Observatories Come of Age." In Science, New Series, Vol. 198, No. 4323, (Dec. 23, 1977), pp. 1235-1239.
McCray, W. Patrick. Giant Telescopes: Astronomical Ambition and the Promise of Technology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.
CITATION: Messier 104, M 104, The Sombrero Galaxy. Id: phot-07a-00. Courtesy of ESO.
DIGITAL ID: 13102