With each discovery that is made, the universe reveals a fraction of its secrets: the most distant galaxies and quasars, the atmosphere of exoplanets, evidence of dark matter, complex molecules in space. This is what fills the days and nights of the researchers from the Leiden Observatory and their colleagues at home and abroad.
Leiden’s role in this is no surprise given that hundreds of researchers from 43 different countries work at the Observatory, all with an insatiable appetite for answers from the universe.
This curiosity has always formed the basis of the work at Leiden Observatory. It did so centuries ago, when the predecessors of today’s researchers gazed through the telescopes of the Old Observatory, which dates from 1633 and is the oldest working university observatory in the world. And it still does today, as its researchers analyse data from telescopes such as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, the LOFAR radio telescope and huge telescopes in space. They also share their passion with the world, for instance by opening the Old Observatory to visitors or through UNAWE, an international programme that brings underprivileged children into contact with astronomy.
Distant and near universe
The researchers at Leiden have wide-ranging interests. They want to discover what is happening in distant space. They want to understand more about the origin, structure and evolution of galaxies, very distant galaxies in particular.
‘Overall, the quality, impact, breadth and innovation of research at the Leiden Observatory is exemplary. It is one of the leading astronomy research programmes in the world.’
Research Assessment 2010-2015 Netherlands Research School for Astronomy (NOVA) and the University Astronomical Institutes
But the near universe does not escape their attention either. This could mean looking at exoplanets, planets that orbit other planets than the sun. How many of these are there? What do they look like? And is life possible on an exoplanet? The researchers also look at the formation of stars and planets. They do this through a combination of astronomical observations, lab experiments, theory and the simulation of relevant physical and chemical processes.
Students doing a master’s degree in Astronomy help conceive and conduct research from their first year already. They learn how to design responsible research and how to be a critical and independent thinker.
With its groundbreaking research, Leiden Observatory has built up a strong international reputation over the centuries. Top astronomers such as Hendrik van de Hulst and Jan Oort worked at the Institute. Leiden Observatory is still among the very best in the world, if the Kavli Prize – the Nobel Prize for astronomy – and the Spinoza Prizes that its researchers have been awarded are anything to go by.
The impact of the Observatory is apparent beyond the field of astronomy too. Astronomy is driven by new technological developments and these are of great value to other fields. Optical systems that were developed for astronomical research are used in the medical world. And liquid crystals and mirrors developed for research into exoplanets have proven extremely useful to ASML, a hightech company. This therefore brings the universe a step closer than we would ever have imagined.