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First stunning images captured by VISTA Telescope

Published: 11 December 2009

A new UK-designed telescope that can map the sky much faster and deeper than any other infrared telescope has made its first release of stunning images.

VISTA (the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) is the world's largest telescope dedicated to mapping the sky in infrared light and will reveal a completely new view of the southern sky. It was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 UK universities led by Queen Mary University of London and including the University of Southampton, and is based at the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile.

The Minister of State for Science and Innovation Lord Drayson, 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."

The first released image shows the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), a spectacular star-forming cloud of gas and dust in the familiar constellation of Orion (the Hunter) and its surroundings. In visible light the core of the object is hidden behind thick clouds of dust, but the VISTA image, taken at infrared wavelengths, can penetrate the murk and reveal the cluster of hot young stars hidden within. The wide field of view of the VISTA camera also captures the glow of NGC 2023 and the ghostly form of the famous Horsehead Nebula.

A second image is a mosaic of two VISTA views towards the centre of our Milky Way galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer). Vast numbers of stars are revealed - this single picture shows about one million stars - and the majority are normally hidden behind thick dust clouds and only become visible at infrared wavelengths.

The hidden fires of the Flame Nebula
Images from Vista

For the final image, VISTA has stared far beyond our galaxy to take a family photograph of a cluster of galaxies in the constellation of Fornax (the Chemical Furnace). The wide field allows many galaxies to be captured in a single image including the striking barred-spiral NGC 1365 and the big elliptical galaxy NGC 1399.

Professor Ian McHardy, Head of the Astronomy Group at the University of Southampton and one of the VISTA co-investigators, says: "VISTA will have enormous impact on our understanding of both the very distant and very nearby universe. Southampton astronomers will use VISTA to understand the formation and evolution of massive black holes in the early universe which are found in deep X-ray and Gamma-ray surveys. These sources are often highly obscured in visible light by dusty surrounding galaxies in the process of formation but can be clearly seen in the infrared by VISTA. We will also study stars and stellar mass black holes in our own, and nearby galaxies, which are also invisible optically. These sources can be highly variable in infrared observations but are not well understood."

The telescope design and construction were project managed by the Science and Technology Facilities Council's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC). VISTA was formally handed over to the ESO at a ceremony at ESO's Headquarters in Garching, Germany, attended by representatives of Queen Mary University of London and STFC on 10 December 2009 and will now be operated by ESO.

Notes for editors

  • Images are available at: http://www.eso.org/public/

  • VISTA is a £37 million project, funded by grants from the DTI's (now BIS) Joint Infrastructure Fund and the STFC to Queen Mary, University of London, the lead institute of the VISTA consortium. VISTA is project managed by STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

    The VISTA consortium consists of: Queen Mary University of London, Queen's University of Belfast, University of Birmingham, University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, University of Central Lancashire, University of Durham, The University of Edinburgh, University of Hertfordshire, Keele University, Leicester University, Liverpool John Moores University, University of Nottingham, University of Oxford, University of St Andrews, University of Southampton, University of Sussex, University College London

  • The Science and Technology Facilities Council www.scitech.ac.uk

  • The European Southern Observatory www.eso.org/public/

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