Oct 29. - Stunning new images of the Milky Way, recently released by the European Southern Observatory, have excited astronomers and amateur star gazers around the world. But they are merely the latest of many ground-breaking observations recorded at the facility since it was established fifty years ago. Tara Cleary reports.
One of the most detailed astronomical images ever taken - scientists at the European Southern Observatory in Chile announced last week they have catalogued more than 84 million stars in the central Milky Way. That's thanks to this telescope, the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, or VISTA - which measures thermal emissions, as opposed to visible light. But the Milky Way images are just one of many achievements for the European Southern Observatory or ESO to celebrate in this, its 50th year. French astronomer Henri Boffin says thanks to VISTA and another instrument, the Very Large Telescope or VLT, his team has made several groundbreaking discoveries. SOUNDBITE: HENRI BOFFIN, FRENCH ASTRONOMER AND HEAD OF LA SILLA PARANAL OBSERVATORY, SAYING (English): "One of them, for example, is the first image of an exoplanet, which is a planet outside our solar system. So we have been able to take an image and this means we can really analyse it. And this is the first step in order to be able to determine if there is life outside in the universe." The VLT is the world's most advanced visible-light optical instrument, with the power to reconstruct distant images in the universe with a clarity of resolution equivalent to discerning the headlights of a car at the distance of the moon. This power has led astronomers to another major finding, says Boffin. SOUNDBITE: HENRI BOFFIN, FRENCH ASTRONOMER AND HEAD OF LA SILLA PARANAL OBSERVATORY, SAYING (English): "There is a gigantic black hole which is about three million times more massive than our sun which lies there inside the core of the Milky Way galaxy." And looking into the future, the observatory will have an even deeper reach into the universe, with the addition of the Extremely Large Telescope planned for the early 2020s. SOUNDBITE: HENRI BOFFIN, FRENCH ASTRONOMER AND HEAD OF LA SILLA PARANAL OBSERVATORY, SAYING (English): "It will be really huge. This means we'll be able to see five times more details, but we'll also be able to see 25 times deeper than what we can do in the current generation of telescope, so we really revolutionise completely, the field of astronomy with it." And that's taking quite literally the ESO's catchphrase , "Reaching New Heights in Astronomy".