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ESOcast 41 Special: Going South

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This is the ESOcast! Cutting-edge science and life behind the scenes of ESO, the European Southern Observatory, exploring the ultimate frontier with our host Dr J, a.k.a. Dr Joe Liske. Hello and welcome to this special episode of the ESOcast. Leading up to ESO’s 50th anniversary in October 2012 we will showcase eight special features portraying ESO’s first 50 years of exploring the southern sky. This is the story of an epic adventure... A story of cosmic curiosity, courage and perseverance... The story of how Europe went South to explore the stars. Going South Welcome to ESO, the European Southern Observatory. Fifty years old, but more vital than ever. ESO is Europe’s portal to the stars. Here astronomers from fifteen countries join forces to unravel the secrets of the Universe. How? By building the largest telescopes on Earth. Designing sensitive cameras and instruments. Scrutinising the heavens. Their work has looked at objects near and far, from comets traversing the Solar System, to distant galaxies at the very edge of space and time, giving us fresh insights and an unprecedented view of the Universe. A Universe of deep mysteries and hidden secrets. And staggering beauty. From remote mountaintops in Chile, European astronomers are reaching for the stars. But why Chile? What made the astronomers go South? The European Southern Observatory has its Headquarters in Garching, Germany. But from Europe, only part of the sky can be seen. To fill in the gaps, you have to travel south. For many centuries, maps of the southern sky showed extensive blank areas – the Terra Incognita of the heavens. 1595. For the first time, Dutch traders set sail to the East Indies. At night, navigators Pieter Keyser and Frederik de Houtman measured the positions of more than 130 stars in the southern sky. Soon, celestial globes and maps showed twelve new constellations, none of which had ever been seen before by any European. The British were the first to construct a permanent astronomical outpost in the southern hemisphere. The Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope was founded in 1820. Not much later, John Herschel built his own private observatory, close to South Africa’s famous Table Mountain. What a view! Dark skies. Bright clusters and star clouds high overhead. Little wonder that Harvard, Yale and Leiden observatories followed suit with their own southern stations. But the exploration of the southern sky still took lots of courage, passion and perseverance. Until fifty years ago, almost all major telescopes were located north of the equator. So why is the southern sky so important? First of all, because it was largely uncharted territory. You just can’t see the whole sky from Europe. A prominent example is the centre of the Milky Way, our home galaxy. It can hardly be seen from the northern hemisphere, but from the south, it passes high overhead. And then there are the Magellanic Clouds – two small companion galaxies to the Milky Way. Invisible from the North, but very conspicuous if you’re south of the equator. And then finally, European astronomers were hindered by light pollution and poor weather. Going south would solve most of their problems. A scenic boat trip in the Netherlands, June 1953. It was here, on the IJsselmeer, that the German/American astronomer Walter Baade and the Dutch astronomer Jan Oort told colleagues about their plan for a European observatory in the southern hemisphere. Individually, no one European country could compete with the United States. But together, they might. Seven months later, twelve astronomers from six countries gathered here, in the stately Senate Room of Leiden University. They signed a statement, expressing the desire to establish a European observatory in South Africa. This paved the way for the birth of ESO. But hang on!… South Africa? Well, it made sense, of course. South Africa already had the Cape Observatory, and, after 1909, the Transvaal Observatory in Johannesburg. Leiden Observatory had its own southern station in Hartebeespoort. In 1955, astronomers set up test equipment to find the best possible spot for a big telescope. Zeekoegat in the Great Karoo. Or Tafelkopje, in Bloemfontein. But the weather was not all that favourable. Around 1960, the focus shifted to the rugged landscape of northern Chile. American astronomers were also planning their own southern hemisphere observatory here. Harsh horseback expeditions revealed much better conditions than in South Africa. In 1963, the die was cast. Chile it would be. Six months later, Cerro La Silla was picked as the future site of the European Southern Observatory. ESO was no longer a distant dream. In the end, five European countries signed the ESO Convention, on 5 October 1962 — the official birthday of the European Southern Observatory. Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden were firmly committed to jointly reach for the southern stars. La Silla and its surroundings were bought from the Chilean government. A road was built in the middle of nowhere. ESO’s first telescope took shape, at a steel company in Rotterdam. And in December 1966, the European Southern Observatory opened its first eye on the sky. Europe had embarked on a grand voyage of cosmic discovery. This is Dr J, signing off from this special episode of the ESOcast. Join me again next time for another cosmic adventure. ESOcast is produced by ESO, the European Southern Observatory. ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the pre-eminent intergovernmental science and technology organisation in astronomy, designing, constructing and operating the world’s most advanced ground-based telescopes. Transcription by ESO; translation by — Now that you've caught up with ESO, head 'out of this world' with Hubble. The Hubblecast highlights the latest discoveries of the world´s most recognized and prized space observatory, The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Video Details

Duration: 10 minutes and 48 seconds
Country: Germany
Language: English
Producer: Lars Lindberg Christensen
Director: Lars Lindberg Christensen
Views: 470
Posted by: esoastronomy on Mar 21, 2012

Leading up to ESO's 50th anniversary in October 2012, we are releasing eight special ESOcasts, each a chapter from the movie Europe to the Stars -- ESO's First 50 Years of Exploring the Southern Sky.

This first special episode — entitled “Going South” — describes the birth of ESO, and in particular why astronomers from European countries decided to explore the southern sky by placing an astronomical observatory in Chile.

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