Visitor at the Very Large Telescope (VLT)

A visitor to the VLT

Image Credit & Copyright: ESO/Alex Tudorica.

What a beautiful image of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal in Chile’s Atacama Desert. As you look at the detail in the night sky, you notice that you don’t see the vast plane of the Milky Way. You do however see a beautiful meteor streak overhead as well as some very familiar friends that those of us here in the Northern Hemisphere are starting to see every morning which lets us know that fall is on the way.

Let’s begin at the left side of the image, just left of one of the four main VLT telescopes. That smudge that slightly resembles a small, distant meteor itself is actually Messier 31 (M31), the Andromeda Galaxy. You soon realize that you’re looking at a 9 billion year old mass roughly twice the diameter of the Milky Way which contains nearly a trillion stars at a distance of 2.5 million light years. Or to put it another way, that’s what it looked like 2.5 million years ago. We can view the nucleus without a telescope but if we could see the entirety of Andromeda it would span 6 full moon widths on our night sky. Also remember, that the two of us are on a collision course and in 4.5 billion years, the two monster galaxies will collide. There’s a great opportunity to illustrate the distance between stars here. It’s believed that when the Milky Way and Andromeda collide and more than a trillion stars merge; that no two stars will collide. The distances between stars are still far enough apart to make this a rare, even unlikely event and that to me is simply amazing.

Now we move right, just between the VLT main scopes and the nearby auxiliary telescope. We look up and see a bright blue star cluster and just to the right of that another more-dim star cluster. That bright open star cluster is Messier 45 (M45) the Pleiades or as it’s also famously known; the Seven Sisters in the constellation Taurus. This hundred-million year old open star cluster is roughly 450 light years away and although it’s famous for its seven brightest stars is actually contains a couple hundred. Like all open star clusters, eventually this group will age, mature and in time part ways. After roughly 200 million years this family of now tight-knit stars will be unrecognizable.

Its partner in the Bull is the famous “V” of Collinder 50 or as it’s famously known; The Hyades. This collection of a few hundred stars is much closer at only 150 light years away but as you can easily tell it looks very different from its neighbor. That’s because this cluster is believed to be about 600 million years old and unlike M45, has had time for the stars within the cluster to age and begin to grow apart. The Hyades also boasts a red supergiant; Aldebaran. This massive star known as the Eye of the Bull isn’t actually in the Hyades, but instead just within our line of sight to it. Its actual distance is only about 65 light years away.

Finally we move far right where we run into Messier 42 (M42) the Orion Nebula. This great star forming region roughly 1600 light years away in the constellation of Orion is likely the most famous nebula in the night sky as the region so easy to pinpoint, even with the naked eye. A wonderful sight even in binoculars, M42 is bigger than the full moon on the night sky.

I hope you all enjoyed this image and although I love the fall, I can’t say as much for winter. Hopefully objects like this can excite you to purchase some binoculars or a telescope and brave the cold for a view only the cold seasons can provide.

ESO page for this image:

Alex Tudorica: Twitter:

Alex Tudorica Flickr:

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