A stunning new photo shows a telescope in Chile blasting a bright orange laser into the sky to create a virtual star in the heart of the Milky Way.
The picture, taken in mid-August, depicts more than just a spectacular laser light show. Astronomers at the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory were using the beam to create a reference point for the VLT's adaptive optics system, which uses adjustable mirrors to compensate for the blurring of Earth's atmosphere.
Generating an artificial star 56 miles (90 km) high helps the telescope calculate how much of an adjustment to apply. The method has been in use since 2002.
The laser is precisely tuned to energize a layer of sodium atoms found in one of the upper layers of the atmosphere. This sodium is thought to be a remnant of countless streaking meteorites. When hit by the laser's light, the sodium atoms start glowing, forming a virtual star the VLT can use as a reference.
Astronomers use this technique to obtain sharper observations. For example, when looking toward the center of our Milky Way, researchers can better monitor the galactic core, where a central supermassive black hole, surrounded by closely orbiting stars, is swallowing gas and dust.
Photographer Yuri Beletsky snapped the photo of the VLT laser. He used a wide-angle lens to snap the image, which covers about 180 degrees of the sky.
Beletsky serves as an ESO photo ambassador, one of several night sky photographers who regular take photos of the observatory's telescopes.
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