ESO's two observatories merge

02/21/05

On February 1, 2005, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has merged its two observatories, La Silla and Paranal, into one. This move will help Europe's prime organisation for astronomy to better manage its many and diverse projects by deploying available resources more efficiently where and when they are needed. The merged observatory will be known as the La Silla Paranal Observatory.

Catherine Cesarsky, ESO's Director General, comments the new development: "The merging, which was planned during the past year with the deep involvement of all the staff, has created unified maintenance and engineering (including software, mechanics, electronics and optics) departments across the two sites, further increasing the already very high efficiency of our telescopes. It is my great pleasure to commend the excellent work of Jorge Melnick, former director of the La Silla Observatory, and of Roberto Gilmozzi, the director of Paranal."

ESO's headquarters are located in Garching, in the vicinity of Munich (Bavaria, Germany), and this intergovernmental organisation has established itself as a world-leader in astronomy.

Created in 1962, ESO is now supported by eleven member states (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom). It operates major telescopes on two remote sites, all located in Chile: La Silla, about 600 km north of Santiago and at an altitude of 2400m; Paranal, a 2600m high mountain in the Atacama Desert 120 km south of the coastal city of Antofagasta. Most recently, ESO has started the construction of an observatory at Chajnantor, a 5000m high site, also in the Atacama Desert.

La Silla, north of the town of La Serena, has been the bastion of the organization's facilities since 1964. It is the site of two of the most productive 4-m class telescopes in the world, the New Technology Telescope (NTT) - the first major telescope equipped with active optics - and the 3.6-m, which hosts HARPS, a unique instrument capable of measuring stellar radial velocities with an unsurpassed accuracy better than 1 m/s, making it a very powerful tool for the discovery of extra-solar planets. In addition, astronomers have also access to the 2.2-m ESO/MPG telescope with its Wide Field Imager camera.

A new control room, the RITZ (Remote Integrated Telescope Zentrum), allows operating all three ESO telescopes at La Silla from a single place. The La Silla Observatory is also the first world-class observatory to have been granted certification for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 9001 Quality Management System.

Moreover, the infrastructure of La Silla is still used by many of the ESO member states for targeted projects such as the Swiss 1.2-m Euler telescope and the robotic telescope specialized in the follow-up of gamma-ray bursts detected by satellites, the Italian REM (Rapid Eye Mount).

In addition, La Silla is in charge of the APEX (Atacama Pathfinder Experiment) 12-m sub-millimetre telescope which will soon start routine observations at Chajnantor, the site of the future Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA). The APEX project is a collaboration between the Max Planck Society in Germany, Onsala Observatory in Sweden and ESO.

ESO also operates Paranal, home of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) and the VLT Interferometer (VLTI). Antu, the first 8.2-m Unit Telescope of the VLT, saw First Light in May 1998, starting what has become a revolution in European astronomy. Since then, the three other Unit Telescopes - Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun - have been successfully put into operation with an impressive suite of the most advanced astronomical instruments. The interferometric mode of the VLT (VLTI) is also operational and fully integrated in the VLT data flow system. In the VLTI mode, one state-of-the-art instrument is already available and another will follow soon.

With its remarkable resolution and unsurpassed surface area, the VLT is at the forefront of astronomical technology and is one of the premier facilities in the world for optical and near-infrared observations.

In addition to the state-of-the-art Very Large Telescope and the four Auxiliary Telescopes of 1.8-m diameter which can move to relocate in up to 30 different locations feeding the interferometer, Paranal will also be home to the 2.6-m VLT Survey telescope (VST) and the 4.2-m VISTA IR survey telescope.

Both Paranal and La Silla have a proven record of their unique ability to address most current issues in observational astronomy. In 2004 alone, each observatory provided data for the publication of about 350 peer-reviewed journal articles, more than any other ground-based observatory.

With the present merging of these top-ranking astronomical observatories, fostering synergies and harmonizing the many diverse activities, ESO and the entire community of European astronomers will profit even more from these highly efficient research facilities.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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