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1997 Fools: ESO AIMS COUPLED OPTICAL TELESCOPES AT THE MOON


Subject:      Dead astronomer on moon?
From:         MNR. F BREUER <s9520155@mail.sun.ac.za>
Date:         1997/03/31
Message-Id:   <5hpc8f$ofh$1@itu3.sun.ac.za>
Newsgroups:   sci.astro


GERD HABINGER
EUROPEAN SOUTHERN OBSERVATORY HEADQUARTERS
MUNICH
GERMANY
EMAIL: gerd@pr.eso.de

JAMES KIRBY
MOUNT ST. JOHN OBSERVATORY
NEW ZEALAND
EMAIL: jamesk@star.msj.nz

ANNOUNCEMENT: FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, 1 April 1997
ESO AIMS COUPLED OPTICAL TELESCOPES AT THE MOON

The European Southern Observatory has succeeded in coupling together three 
large optical telescopes in Chile and New Zealand and combined their images 
to achieve a resolution orders of magnitudes higher than ever before. The
technique, known as VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry) was combined
with adaptive optics in all three telescopes, a recent development that
involves changing the shape of the primary mirror at a rate of up to 100
times per second, to distort the image in such a way as to compensate
completely the distorting effects of the atmosphere. Both these techniques
have been used before, with spectacular effects, but this is the first time
that they were combined, and also the first time that the telescopes
involved were so far apart. The resolution achieved by coupling
telescopes together increases with the distance between the telescopes, and 
the largest distance previously used was a mere 300m, whereas this time two 
of the telescopes were based at the ESO observatory in Chile and one in New
Zealand, a distance of approximately 8000km.

Astronomers at ESO said that the result was a staggering resolution that was
several orders of magnitude greater than the best previously achieved
resolution. The operation was accompanied by immense technical hurdles, as
the tracking of all three telescopes had to be made much smoother and more
accurate than ever before, especially as long exposures (up to 45 minutes at
a time) are necessary to gather enough light to build up a significant
image. After working on this project for nearly three years the ESO team, 
headed by Sigmund Orlander from the ESO headquarters in Munich, Germany,
finally achieved their first success on 23 March 1997. The first picture
they took was of a region of the Orion Nebula (see ESO press release, 28
March 1997). 

On 29 March they aimed the telescope at the moon to take pictures of the 
Apollo 12 landing site, in order to dispel the rumors that the Apollo 
missions were acted out and filmed in a NASA studio. They indeed got
pictures of the Apollo 12 landing site clearly showing the traces of the
landing as well as human footprints. However they also found something that
has inflamed a fierce controversy: the body of an astronaut, in full NASA
spacesuit, with the word "HELP" scrawled in the sand next to it. Jeremy
Garfinkle (email: jg@pub.nasa.gov), a spokesperson of NASA, has denied that
the NASA had left any astronauts behind on the moon and points out that all
the astronauts on the Apollo 12 mission had returned safely. "This is utter
nonsense," claims Jeremy Garfinkle in a reply fax to ESO, "it is some kind
of European attempt to discredit the NASA. This is a striking example of
jealousy and bad science". Mr. Garfinkle further threatened the ESO with
legal action if the pictures of the Apollo 12 landing site are released to
the public, describing them as "fabrications". Some members of the ESO 
believe, however, that the Apollo 12 crew may have left an empty spacesuit 
and the message on the moon as a practical joke. Mr. Garfinkle also denied
this possibility. "The NASA astronauts are highly disciplined and would not
play such childish pranks. Besides, we would have noticed if a space suit
had gone missing."

The ESO and NASA have agreed, however, to investigate the matter further and
will take more pictures of the Apollo 12 landing site shortly. Rumors that
the incriminating pictures have been leaked to the WWW are as yet
unsubstantiated. More press releases, by NASA and the ESO are expected
within the next few days.

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