Sunday, December 13, 2009

UK’s Vista telescope sheds new light on Milky Way and beyond

A new telescope designed by British scientists has released its first images, revealing spectacular views of both the Milky Way and distant galaxies.

The stunning pictures of the Flame Nebula, the centre of the Milky Way and the Fornax Galaxy Cluster show that Vista — the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy — is working well.

Vista is the largest and most powerful telescope yet built for surveying the sky using infrared light, which allows it to peer through clouds of dust that obscure many celestial structures when viewed in the visible spectrum.

The telescope — which cost £37 million — at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile, was developed and built by a consortium of 18 British universities, and was formally handed over for operations this week.

Its image of the Flame Nebula, a star-forming cloud of gas and dust in the constellation Orion, shows off Vista’s capabilities particularly well. When observed with visible light, the Nebula’s core is hidden by dust, but infrared light has revealed the cluster of hot young stars at its heart.

A new image of the centre of the Milky Way, in the constellation Sagittarius, has been assembed from two Vista views, which have again penetrated opaque clouds to show about a million stars in a single picture.

The image of the Fornax Galaxy Cluster shows off Vista’s wide angle of view, which has allowed multiple galaxies to be seen in a single shot.

Vista, which sits adjacent to ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), will be used to study the nature and distribution of stars and galaxies of different types, as well as the underlying structure of the Universe.

It will also investigate the mysterious “dark matter” and “dark energy” that are known to make up much of the Universe’s mass, but which have not yet been directly observed.

Professor Jim Emerson, of Queen Mary, University of London, who leads the Vista consortium, said its most exciting discoveries would probably be unanticipated. “History has shown us that the most exciting things that come out of projects like Vista are what you least expect — and I’m very excited to see what these will be,” he said.

Lord Drayson, the Science and Innovation Minister, said: “This outstanding example of UK kit is revealing our Universe’s deepest secrets. I eagerly await more images from Vista, which builds on our reputation as a world-leading centre for astronomy.”

Professor Tim de Zeeuw, director-general of ESO, said: “Vista is a unique addition to ESO’s observatory on Cerro Paranal. It will play a pioneering role in surveying the southern sky at infrared wavelengths and will find many interesting targets for study by the future European Extremely Large Telescope.”

Professor Keith Mason, chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds the Vista collaboration, said: “This innovative telescope will help to reveal some of the deepest secrets of the Universe like the nature of dark matter and dark energy.”

Professor John Womersley, director of science programmes at STFC, said: “The handover of Vista marks a major milestone for UK astronomy, strengthens our relationship with ESO and enhances our capabilities in an area of science where the UK has a particular strength.”

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