New telescope sets the Southern skies aflame

By Joseph Milton, FT science intern

Some spectacular images have been captured by a new British-built telescope at the European Southern Observatory‘s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

They are the first pictures from the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), the world’s largest survey telescope, which detects infrared wavelengths, revealing a novel view of the southern sky. VISTA should add to our understanding of the nature, distribution and origin of stars and galaxies, and may help determine the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.

The £37m telescope was conceived, designed and built by a consortium of 18 UK universities, project-managed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (STFC UKATC), then given to the ESO. Britain joined the organisation in 2002, and was not a member at its 1962 inception. Now we pay a subscription and have given them VISTA as part of an accession agreement, strengthening links between the UK and the ESO.

It is certainly an impressive piece of kit – the main mirror is 4.1 metres in diameter and deviates from a perfect surface by no more than a few thousandths of the thickness of a human hair. It is the most highly curved mirror of this size and quality ever made.

At the heart of VISTA is a 3-tonne infrared camera with 16 sensors, totalling 67 million pixels, allowing VISTA to view objects too cool to be viewed by visible light, hidden behind dust clouds or so far away that the expansion of the Universe has stretched their light beyond the visible range. Because infrared radiation coming from space is very faint, the camera must be kept at a temperature of -200 degrees Celsius and is sealed with the largest infrared-transparent window ever made.

VISTA can detect faint sources and also cover wide areas of sky quickly, so it will be able to detect and catalogue objects over the whole southern sky with unprecedented sensitivity. The jump in observational power it represents is equivalent to changing from the naked eye to Galileo’s first telescope.

The Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), a spectacular star-forming cloud of gas and dust in the constellation of Orion.

The Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), a spectacular star-forming cloud of gas and dust in the constellation of Orion. Without VISTA’s infrared sensors, this image would be obscured by thick dust clouds.

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