Although the milestone has been little noted in North America, 50 years have now passed since the European Southern Observatory (ESO) began its operations in Chile.  During the five decades that ESO astronomers have been studying the night sky of the Southern Hemisphere, they have made countless invaluable contributions to the field.

Looking Back

ESO traces its origin back to 1954 when representatives of six European nations signed the Leiden Declaration, announcing their intent to set up an astronomical observatory in the Southern Hemisphere.  Originally, the plan was to establish the facility in South Africa, but it was later determined that a site in Chile’s Atacama Desert would be more suitable.

The La Silla telescopes sit at an altitude of 2,700 meters in the Atacama Desert. (Photo credit: Hernan Fernandez Retamal)

The first ESO telescope began operating, in 1966, in La Silla, Chile.  For the first time, a reflector telescope with an aperture of two or more meters was in position to observe inviting astronomical targets in the southern sky such as the Magellanic Clouds and central regions of the Milky Way.

The Very Large Telescope’s image of two nebulae – NGC 2020 (left) and NGC 2014 – in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (Image credit: ESO)

In the half-century since the La Silla facility opened, the European Southern Observatory has expanded its operations to three sites in northern Chile (with a fourth planned for the mid-2020s), firmly laying claim to being the premier system of astronomical observatories in the Southern Hemisphere.  Also during this time, the roster of ESO member states has grown to 16.

8 telescopes operational

with 1 under construction

over 250 article citations

in 2009 alone

65 terrabytes of data

in permanent archive

ESO Discoveries Make Headlines around the World

“We hit the jackpot here.” – Guillem Anglada-Escude, Astrophysicist, Queen Mary University

Just this week, an international team of astronomers using the 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla announced the discovery of a “Goldilocks planet” only 4.22 light years away.  The exoplanet circles Proxima Centauri, the closest neighboring star to our sun, and is thought to be well within the habitable zone of its red star.  Because it is so close, astronomers are keen to look for signs of life with Earth- and space-based instruments and, if it continues to appear promising, eventually to send a spacecraft to explore the planet close-up.

The identification of the Proxima Centauri exoplanet is just one of many impressive discoveries made by astronomers affiliated with ESO.  The research subjects cover an extraordinary range and include virtually every area of astronomical interest that can be meaningfully observed by Earth-based instruments – from black holes to cosmic temperature measurements, from exoplanets to the most distant stars in the Milky Way, from gamma radiation to the accelerating expansion of the Universe.

A Stream of Fascinating Images

The contributions to a deeper understanding of the cosmos have been accompanied by a cornucopia of images captured by ESO telescopes.  These glimpses into the Universe stimulate curiosity and fascination on the parts of millions of viewers around the world, and they make us grateful for the 50 years (so far) that the European Southern Observatory has been providing them to be viewed, shared, discussed, and just plain enjoyed.

Here are a few that SpaceRip finds to be especially awesome:

Oddly shaped galaxy Centaurus A. [Image credit: ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimetre); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray)]
The Helix Nebula’s blue center is like the cornea of an eyeball through which we see distant stars and galaxies. (Image credit: ESO)
Composite image of the Antennae Galaxies. (Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO). Visible light image: the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope)
Two spiral galaxies and an irregular galaxy merge to form “The Bird.” (Image credit: ESO)

Watch for SpaceRip’s “Weekend Wow!” on Saturdays in your Facebook newsfeed, and check out these top 5 ESO shorts.

In our first video, “Polarizing Planets”, you will see one of the techniques used to detect the habitable planet just found. Check it out now!