Tag Archives: GalileoMobile

A feast to the eyes and to the heart: the VLT as seen by a non astronomer

By Meghie Rodrigues

The first thing you notice when you approach the VLT (Very Large Telescope) is its size. No doubt this is ‘big science’ in all senses: the four main telescopes have mirrors measuring 8.2m in diameter and are housed in structures which are as tall as an eight floor building (25 m high) and as heavy as about a hundred Asian elephants (430 tonnes). It brings to mind that the old saying ‘bigger is better’ makes a lot of sense when it comes to optical astronomy – the bigger the mirrors used, the more light you get and the farther you can look into deep space.

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Two of the four main telescopes at the right and one of the auxiliary telescopes at the left

This is what I saw, along with other Brazilian journalists, in getting to Cerro Paranal, a mountain region located in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) runs a variety of telescopes in the region and the VLT is the biggest of them.

We were taken to more than 2,600 meters above the sea level in one of the driest places on Earth (lots of sunscreen, drinking water and winter clothing is highly recommended) where rain just falls for about two months a year and where you can see the clouds below your feet, kept from getting too close by the Andes range. Which is a good thing for observations: the lower the humidity in the atmosphere, the lower distortion you get in images – and the further you go from cities or places with artificial light, the darker and better it is to observe the sky. And yes, from the point of view of a Brazilian, nights are terribly cold at that altitude!

Days at Paranal are as bright as nights are dark, and the view of a rich diamond-studded black cloth extended high above your head during nighttime is a feast to the eyes and to the heart.


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Roof of the main telescope #2 (Kueyen) open to get the instrumentation ready for night observation

Named in Mapuche language – Antu (the Sun), Kueyen (the Moon), Melipal (the Southern Cross) and Yepun (Venus) – the telescopes can be used separately, each as a single instrument, or together, as what scientists call a ‘interferometer’. As such, it allows a closer look into many observation questions, including extra-solar planets – or planets outside our solar system –, the formation of stars and planetary systems as well as the surface of stars.

In talking to astronomers at Cerro Paranal, it wasn’t hard to see that ‘impressive’ applies not only to the size of the main telescopes but also to the science that comes out of them. The first image of an extra-solar planet, 2M1207, was one of them. Also, the oldest star we’ve seen in the universe up to now – which is said to be 13,2 billion years old, almost the age of the Universe itself – was found using the telescopes. Evidence of the accelerated expansion of the Universe also drew from many of the VLT observations.


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Mirror of the Kueyen telescope, 8.2m wide

So many hours of past and present observations are made by astronomers who are specialists in the many instruments VLT has – requested by other scientists from a wide range of fields in observational astrophysics spread all over the world. They give away their evenings and nights in a different kind of ‘star parties’: instead of our romantic idea of an astronomer peeping into a telescope in a cold night, they receive tons of data from different ultra-sensitive cameras installed in the telescopes. Barbara has given us an account of her own observations there some time ago and she gives us a great idea of how it all works. 🙂

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Astronomers in action in the VLT control room at the Interferometer console

It was, in the end, quite interesting to be able to see and think about some of the tendencies and routes ‘big science’ is taking in a world where scientific and political cooperation is key. Massive projects like the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope and ESO’s European Extremely Large Telescope rely on more than agreements between research institutions and universities – they also go for negotiation between governments and their institutions, taking the conversation to the arena of diplomatic relations. Conversation on this level means more solidity for projects, which is important especially when it involves billions of dollars or euros. After all, you can’t do ‘big science’ alone.

Cidade de Deus beyond the movie sets

During the last week of June, Mars Academy took off in Rio de Janeiro

By Meghie Rodrigues, Patrícia Spinelli and Sandra Benitez

Mars Academy is more than just a well-intentioned project thought up by a bunch of ‘green’ young scientists with a desire to share their knowledge with kids who probably would never have such opportunity otherwise. It’s a mixture of good insights, lots of questions, life stories and a not-so-secret element, science. Shaken all up, these elements lit a spark on the lives of both the kids and scientists involved – Americans and GalileoMobile’s – and it was a pretty cool sight. GalileoMobile has done exactly that for a few years now and it’s good to see other projects with similar objectives popping up.


The pre-teens and teenagers from INPAR (Instituto Prebisteriano Álvaro Reis de Assistência à Criança e ao Adolescente), at the Cidade de Deus community, thought, after observing flowers bloom on Jaguanum island, near Rio de Janeiro, about how life flourished on Earth; and if there’s the possibility for life to evolve on other planets in the Universe. A camera mounted on a little rover was successfully used to explore the island above and below water. Tatiana, one of the teens exploring the island, said what most caught her attention was the ability to see oysters and life underwater without having to dive. “It’s really cool”, she said. It appeared to give a glimpse of how life is sought out in inhospitable environments such as Mars itself.


It has long been suggested that other bodies in the Solar System, besides Mars, might be suitable for hosting life. This idea was also introduced to the participating teenagers by the Mars Academy team. The students made a scaled representation of our Solar System to elucidate this topic in a more hands-on way and to add to the discussion of the physical properties of these planetary objects. The scaled model followed the activity ‘The Earth as a Peppercorn!’ from GalileoMobile’s handbook of activities, which was conducted by Mars Academy and GalileoMobile members. The students first had to calculate the sizes of the planets using a peppercorn as a reference size for Earth and then made their scaled planets out of clay. They proceeded with a calculation of the distances between the planets in the model and went to the school yard to place the celestial objects in the correct propertions. When it came to Jupiter, we could immediately recognize, as always, the feeling of awe that overcame them.


The use of the HiRISE camera also got the attention of the kids. They had to combine latitude and longitude to indicate where should we point the camera to on Mars. Dark spots, mounts and valleys seemed to have a special allure, but they weren’t the only areas students wanted to see. The astronomer Wladimir Lyra, also in charge of Mars Academy, made clear, that in case the observations of the chosen spots lead to a major breakthrough and a scientific publication, the INPAR kids in Rio will be co-authors of the study along with scientists Jeff Marlow, the CalTech geobiologist who initiated the project, and NASA researchers Paul Hayne, Carolyn Crow and Wladimir, all of them primarily responsible for Mars Academy.


If HiRISE will send a “Eureka!” message, whilst analyzing the areas chosen in Rio, is part of the second round of the project, planned in October. At that time, the Mars Academy scientists will return to Brazil and analyze the Mars photos together with the students. Right now, the pictures’ coordinates are waiting to be sent to the NASA camera over the next few months. Fingers crossed for the kids from Cidade de Deus and that they will hit the headlines of science news not too far from now.

A visit to Mars Academy

By Sandra

Imagine you get to school one day, and instead of sitting through a tough class of math or history, your duty is to control a NASA mission looking at yet unseen regions of Mars! Would you like that? Well, then welcome to the Mars Academy!

Mars Academy is an outreach project designed by a team of NASA astronomers to inspire students from the ‘City of God’ neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, by exposing them to the latest knowledge regarding the Red Planet and attempt to raise their interest in science and technology. The astronomers will work together with local teachers at the INPAR (Instituto Prebisteriano Álvaro Reis de Assistência à Criança e ao Adolescente) school to offer the students a week of hands-on lessons covering different topics within astronomy and planetary science.


After the first days covering introductory lessons, the students will submit targets for observation for NASA’s HiRISE camera, which will be sent to mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. HiRISE is one of the most advanced instruments exploring our Solar System and has produced beautiful images of our mysterious neighbor. These novel images will bring new scientific knowledge and contribute to the progress in the field.


Local scientists from Brazilian institutions, as well as two team members of GalileoMobile, will also participate in the experience and support the American team in their work with the students, taking care of language and logistics.

A team of film-makers will accompany the project and produce a documentary to share the students’ personal journeys of discovery and the lessons learned from this experience with other children, schools, and public around the world.


As put by one of the leading astronomers of the project, Wladimir Lyra, “If we can inspire favela kids, if we can kindle that light and provide the seeds that will make them pursue science as a career and go to college, they will have broken the cycle. They will become success stories, their peers will see that it’s possible to achieve social mobility through education, and at some point we can turn the tide of the urban reality in Rio.”

Keep tuned to the Mars Academy facebook page for more information about the upcoming visit to City of God!