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Shot Through The Heart: Telescope Fires Laser at Milky Way

A stunning new photo shows a telescope inChile blasting a bright orange laser into the sky to create a virtual star inthe heart of the Milky Way.

The picture, taken in mid-August, depictsmore than just a spectacular laser light show. Astronomers at the EuropeanSouthern Observatory's Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory wereusing the beam to create a reference point for the VLT's adaptiveoptics system, which uses adjustable mirrors to compensate forthe blurring of Earth's atmosphere.

Generatingan artificial star 56 miles (90 km) high helps the telescope calculate howmuch of an adjustment to apply. The method has been in use since 2002.

The laser is precisely tuned to energize alayer of sodium atoms found in one of the upper layers of the atmosphere. Thissodium is thought to be a remnant of countless streaking meteorites. When hitby the laser's light, the sodium atoms start glowing, forming a virtual starthe VLTcan use as a reference.

Astronomers use this technique to obtainsharper observations. For example, when looking toward the center of our MilkyWay, researchers can better monitor the galactic core, where a central supermassiveblack hole, surrounded by closely orbiting stars, is swallowinggas and dust.

Photographer Yuri Beletsky snapped the photo of theVLT 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 skyphotographers who regular take photos of the observatory's telescopes.

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