From ESOblog (EU): “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” 

From ESOblog (EU)


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European Southern Observatory [Observatoire européen austral][Europäische Südsternwarte] (EU) (CL)

14 January 2022

Juliet Hannay

Biography: Juliet Hannay

Juliet Hannay is part of the science communications team at ESO. She is a former student of The University of Glasgow (SCT) acquiring a Bachelors and Masters degree in Astronomy and Physics. Juliet found a passion for science outreach and communication through her roles as Outreach Convenor, Vice President and President for the Women in STEM society and specialist editor for the Glasgow Insight into Science and Technology magazine.


For millennia, humans have gazed at the stars wondering if we could ever travel away from our own planet and if so, what lies to infinity and beyond. The discovery of more galaxies, stars and other worlds alongside the boom of space travel has allowed us to escape into our imaginations and try to answer some of the mysterious questions posed by the cosmos. What better device to tackle these questions than science fiction (or ‘sci-fi’), which allows us to let out creativity roam free in the realms of science?

While many portrayals of science in sci-fi are inaccurate and sometimes outrageous, a large proportion of stories are actually based on real planets, stars and galaxies, some of which we will explore here…

Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse, Betelgeuse!

Betelgeuse-a superluminous red giant star 650 light-years away in the infrared from the European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU)Herschel Space Observatory (EU) Stars like Betelgeuse, end their lives as supernovae. Credit: Decin et al.

Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the night sky, visible with just the naked eye. This red supergiant –– an evolved massive star –– lies within the constellation of Orion, famous for its belt.

In one of the most detailed astronomical images ever produced, NASA ESA’s Hubble Space Telescope captured an unprecedented look at the Orion Nebula. This extensive study took 105 Hubble orbits to complete. All imaging instruments aboard the telescope.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration(US)/European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne] [Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU) Hubble Space Telescope.

Orion Molecular Cloud Complex showing the distinctive three stars of Orion’s belt. Credit: Rogelio Bernal Andreo Wikimedia Commons.

Betelgeuse is so huge that if it were to lie at the centre of our Solar System in place of our Sun, it would extend almost all the way out to Jupiter, far beyond Earth, engulfing us whole. Perhaps most notoriously, it is known for leaving astronomers scratching their heads after becoming visibly darker in late 2019 and early 2020, with the public wondering if Betelgeuse was about to reach the end of its life.

These images, taken with the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope [below], show the surface of the red supergiant star Betelgeuse during its unprecedented dimming, which happened in late 2019 and early 2020.

European Southern Observatory(EU) SPHERE extreme adaptive optics system and coronagraphic facility on the VLT UT3, Cerro Paranal, Chile, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

The image on the far left, taken in January 2019, shows the star at its normal brightness, while the remaining images, from December 2019, January 2020, and March 2020, were all taken when the star’s brightness had noticeably dropped, especially in its southern region. The brightness returned to normal in April 2020. Credit: M. Montargès et al./ESO.

If this was to occur, Betelgeuse would go supernova, an explosion that would be so bright it would be visible during the day for over three months! Unfortunately for space enthusiasts, the true cause for its dimming was uncovered by astronomers using ESO’s Very Large Telescope and it was simply a sheet of dust (itself the result of changes in Betelgeuse’s surface) shading this stellar beast.

Not only has Betelgeuse made headlines recently, it has also leant itself to the sci-fi community for many years. Perhaps the most famous use of Betelgeuse is in the 1988 film Beetlejuice directed by Tim Burton. The main antagonist of the film is Betelgeuse (pronounced ‘Beetlejuice’), an undead ‘bio-exorcist’ whose job was to get rid of the living! If his name is said three times, he will appear and haunt you. The alternate spelling of his name is revealed by a game of charades to prevent unsuspecting victims from accidentally summoning him.

Beetlejuice isn’t the only film to use a homophone for Betelgeuse. The long awaited adaptation of the beloved sci-fi novel Dune by Frank Herbert hit the big screens in 2021, and also features a play on the star’s name. A creative homophone of Betelgeuse is used as a colloquial name for the planet Kuentsing V, a politically important planet for the freedom-fighting Fremen people, which they call Bela Tegeuse.

But Betelgeuse’s reach extends beyond homophones. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979), a novel and radio series by Douglas Adams, this massive star hosts a planetary system home to carbon-based aliens, including the former president of the galaxy himself. In Planet of the Apes (1963), a novel by Pierre Boulle, scientific genius Professor Antelle invents a spaceship that can travel at nearly the speed of light –– something sadly still out of our grasp in real life. He and his companions voyage to the star Betelgeuse, said to be “emit[ting] red and orange lights”: not too different to what we observe nowadays!

In real life, Betelgeuse has provided astronomers with an abundance of stunning research that may sound like something from sci-fi. Using ESO’s Very Large Telescope and ESO’s Very Large Telescope Interferometer [below], astronomers have revealed how Betelgeuse ejects huge plumes of gas and dust, which helps us understand how supergiant stars lose mass.

29 July 2009
Using different state-of-the-art techniques on ESO’s Very Large Telescope, two independent teams of astronomers have obtained the sharpest ever views of the supergiant star Betelgeuse. They show that the star has a vast plume of gas almost as large as our Solar System and a gigantic bubble boiling on its surface. These discoveries provide important clues to help explain how these mammoths shed material at such a tremendous rate.

Zoom in on the supergiant star Betelgeuse.
Credit: P. Kervella and A. Fujii/ESO/ Digitized Sky Survey 2. Music by John Dyson from the CD darklight.

Our friendly neighbourhood aliens

Alpha Centauri (α Centauri) is a triple star system made up of α Centauri A (Rigil Kentaurus), α Centauri B (Toliman), and α Centauri C (Proxima Centauri).

Centauris Alpha, Beta, Proxima, 27 February 2012. Skatebiker.

Proxima Centauri is slightly closer to Earth than the other two stars, making it our closest stellar neighbour. It is no surprise many have dreamed of being able to travel there.

In the television series Lost in Space, created by Irwin Allen, the Robinson family, their pilot and a robot, set out from an overpopulated Earth in the spacecraft Jupiter 2. The crew is frozen in suspended animation for the five-and-a-half year voyage to a “known” habitable planet of Alpha Centauri, on which they are to establish a colony; however, they get lost en route.

More recently, Alpha Centauri made an appearance in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). The film is set in 2154 on Pandora, a lush habitable moon of the gas giant Polyphemus of α Centauri A. Pandora, whose atmosphere is poisonous to humans, is inhabited by the Na’vi, 3-metre-tall blue-skinned intelligent humanoids who live in harmony with nature.

Of course any mention of Alpha Centauri would not be complete without talking about the world-wide phenomenon Star Trek. Our neighbouring star system is mentioned in many episodes including Metamorphosis (1967), in which Captain Kirk whimsically claims, “I’m a little green man from Alpha Centauri, a beautiful place, you ought to see it!”.

Though Alpha Centauri has fascinated creatives for a long time, astronomers know more about the star system than science fiction might suggest. In 2016, researchers found clear evidence of an Earth-mass planet around Proxima Centauri, bringing a dose of reality to the stories. Using different instruments, including HARPS at ESO’s La Silla Observatory [below], astronomers detected the subtle wobble that the planet induces on its host star as it moves around it. But there’s more! Using the Atacama Large Milimeter/submilimeter Array [below], in which ESO is a partner, the same team discovered a dusty belt around Proxima Centauri, so this star could host a more complex planetary system.

The location of Proxima Centauri in the southern skies.
24 August 2016
Image showing the location of the Alpha Centauri triple system, as seen from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The large dome hosts the ESO 3.6-metre telescope and the HARPS spectrograph used to find an exoplanet around Proxima Centauri.
This picture combines a view of the southern skies over the ESO 3.6-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile with images of the stars Proxima Centauri (lower-right) and the double star Alpha Centauri AB (lower-left) from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Proxima Centauri is the closest star to the Solar System and is orbited by the planet Proxima b, which was discovered using the HARPS instrument on the ESO 3.6-metre telescope. Credit: Y. Beletsky (Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network)/ESO/The European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU)/M. Zamani/The National Aeronautics and Space Administration(US).

Clash of the Titans

The Andromeda Galaxy is a spiral galaxy approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth, or 770 kiloparsecs if we use the unit of measure preferred by both Star Trek and professional astronomers.

Andromeda Galaxy Messier 31. Credit: Adam Evans.

It is in fact the nearest large galaxy to the Milky Way and, under a perfectly clear and dark sky, it is just visible to the unaided eye. The Andromeda galaxy is the most studied galaxy so far besides our own, and has provided astronomers with an abundance of breathtaking images.

It is orbited by several dwarf galaxies, making it a very busy galactic neighbourhood with plenty of potential for astronomers to get their teeth into. In fact, the Andromeda Galaxy is actually hurtling towards the Milky Way at 400,000 kilometres per hour and is set to pass through us in a few billion years.

Milkdromeda with Andromeda on the left-Earth’s night sky in 3.75 billion years. No one will be here on Earth to see it. Maybe humans will have escaped the Sun’s becoming a Red Giant and observe it from a new home. Credit: NASA.

While this collision may sound catastrophic, it will in fact be rather peaceful: while the gravitational interaction will distort both galaxies, the stars themselves won’t collide with each other due to the large separation between them.

It is no wonder that our closest galactic neighbour is of such interest to the sci-fi community. It is the host of many fictional alien species: the Guardians of the Galaxy films take place primarily within it, and according to some comics Superman’s home planet Krypton is located there. Andromeda is also a recurrent location in shows like Doctor Who.

However, alien species from Andromeda are not always a threat to humankind. In the first series of the British comedy sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, blancmanges from the planet Skyron in the Andromeda galaxy were major comedic characters. For instance, they are seen to convert people into stereotypical Scotsmenin (Scots people) in order to win the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

As you can see, astronomy and science fiction have always gone hand by hand. The next decade of space exploration — with telescopes such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope [below] in Chile — will bring a new generation of other worlds to feed creative sci-fi minds and allow us to travel beyond our wildest imaginations.

See the full article here.


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European Southern Observatory [Observatoire européen austral][Europäische Südsternwarte] (EU) is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 16 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is a major partner in ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. And on Cerro Armazones, close to Paranal, ESO is building the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

European Southern Observatory(EU) La Silla HELIOS (HARPS Experiment for Light Integrated Over the Sun).

ESO 3.6m telescope & HARPS atCerro LaSilla, Chile, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

MPG Institute for Astronomy [Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie](DE) 2.2 meter telescope at/European Southern Observatory(EU) Cerro La Silla, Chile, 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

European Southern Observatory(EU)La Silla Observatory 600 km north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2400 metres.

European Southern Observatory(EU) , Very Large Telescope at Cerro Paranal in the Atacama Desert •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ) •KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ) •MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and •YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening star). Elevation 2,635 m (8,645 ft) from above Credit J.L. Dauvergne & G. Hüdepohl atacama photo.

European Southern Observatory(EU)VLTI Interferometer image, Cerro Paranal, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level, •ANTU (UT1; The Sun ),
•KUEYEN (UT2; The Moon ),
•MELIPAL (UT3; The Southern Cross ), and
•YEPUN (UT4; Venus – as evening.

ESO VLT Survey telescope.

ESO Very Large Telescope 4 lasers on Yepun (CL)

Glistening against the awesome backdrop of the night sky above ESO’s Paranal Observatory, four laser beams project out into the darkness from Unit Telescope 4 UT4 of the VLT, a major asset of the Adaptive Optics system.

ESO/NTT NTT at Cerro La Silla , Chile, at an altitude of 2400 metres.

Part of ESO’s Paranal Observatory, the VLT Survey Telescope (VISTA) observes the brilliantly clear skies above the Atacama Desert of Chile. It is the largest survey telescope in the world in visible light, with an elevation of 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

European Southern Observatory/National Radio Astronomy Observatory(US)/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan(JP) ALMA Array in Chile in the Atacama at Chajnantor plateau, at 5,000 metres.

European Southern Observatory(EU) ELT 39 meter telescope to be on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. located at the summit of the mountain at an altitude of 3,060 metres (10,040 ft).

European Southern Observatory(EU)/MPG Institute for Radio Astronomy [MPG Institut für Radioastronomie](DE) ESO’s Atacama Pathfinder Experiment(CL) high on the Chajnantor plateau in Chile’s Atacama region, at an altitude of over 4,800 m (15,700 ft).

Leiden MASCARA instrument cabinet at Cerro La Silla, located in the southern Atacama Desert 600 kilometres (370 mi) north of Santiago de Chile at an altitude of 2,400 metres (7,900 ft).

ESO Next Generation Transit Survey telescopes, an array of twelve robotic 20-centimetre telescopes at Cerro Paranal,(CL) 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

ESO Speculoos telescopes four 1 meter robotic telescopes at ESO Paranal Observatory 2635 metres 8645 ft above sea level.[/caption]

TAROT telescope at Cerro LaSilla, 2,635 metres (8,645 ft) above sea level.

European Southern Observatory(EU) ExTrA telescopes at erro LaSilla at an altitude of 2400 metres.

A novel gamma ray telescope under construction on Mount Hopkins, Arizona. A large project known as the Čerenkov Telescope Array composed of hundreds of similar telescopes to be situated in the Canary Islands and Chile at, ESO Cerro Paranal site The telescope on Mount Hopkins will be fitted with a prototype high-speed camera, assembled at the. University of Wisconsin–Madison and capable of taking pictures at a billion frames per second. Credit: Vladimir Vassiliev.

European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU), The new Test-Bed Telescope 2is housed inside the shiny white dome shown in this picture, at ESO’s LaSilla Facility in Chile. The telescope has now started operations and will assist its northern-hemisphere twin in protecting us from potentially hazardous, near-Earth objects.The domes of ESO’s 0.5 m and the Danish 0.5 m telescopes are visible in the background of this image.Part of the world-wide effort to scan and identify near-Earth objects, the European Space Agency’s Test-Bed Telescope 2 (TBT2), a technology demonstrator hosted at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, has now started operating. Working alongside its northern-hemisphere partner telescope, TBT2 will keep a close eye on the sky for asteroids that could pose a risk to Earth, testing hardware and software for a future telescope network.

European Space Agency [Agence spatiale européenne][Europäische Weltraumorganisation](EU) The open dome of The black telescope structure of the‘s Test-Bed Telescope 2 peers out of its open dome in front of the rolling desert landscape. The telescope is located at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, which sits at a 2400 metre altitude in the Chilean Atacama desert.a desert.