The new VLT Survey Telescope delivers spectacular images

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Jun 8, 2011
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[Update: I originally had called this the Very Large Survey Telescope, but have learned it's actually the VLT (for Very Large Telescope) Survey Telescope. I've corrected this in the title and below. I like my less-redundant name for it better, but it's best to be accurate.]

The European Southern Observatory is an agency that governs some of the best telescopes on the planet, and they just added a new eye on the sky: the VLTe Survey Telescope (VST), a 2.6 meter 'scope in Chile. There are lots of telescopes of similar size dotting our planet, but what makes this one special is its huge field of view -- a solid one degree across, twice the diameter of the Moon on the sky - and the resolution of the camera: a terrifying 268 megapixels!

When you put that together, you get some dazzling pictures, like this one of the globular cluster Omega Centauri:

[Click to englobulenate to a 4000 x 4000 pixel 13 MB image, or grab yourself the internet-choking 14,540 x 14,540 pixel 280 MB version.]

Omega Cen is one of the largest globular clusters of the 150 or so orbiting the Milky Way galaxy, a collection of hundreds of thousands or even millions of stars all orbiting the cluster center willy-nilly like bees swarming around a hive. Telescopes like the VST will allow astronomers to survey these clusters quickly and deeply, which is important because it's sometimes difficult to know what stars are in the cluster and which happen to be in the background or foreground. You have to get a good census of cluster membership before moving on to studying how old the stars are, what they're made of, and how they behave. Since globulars are among the oldest objects in the Universe and are tied with galaxy formation, understanding them leads to understanding a great deal more.

VST also took this spectacular picture of the star-forming region M17, also known as the Omega nebula:

[Click to get the 1280 x 1280 pixel version, or again, if you have broadband as wide as a football field, download the terrifying 16,017 x 16,017 pixel 355 MB version.]

You really want to grab at least the medium-res images. I spent several minutes scrolling around the nebula shot and then picking my jaw up off the floor. The array of stars, bright gas, dark gas, shock waves, and other assorted features is truly beautiful.

Oh-- if you're wondering that the first two images released were of Omega Cen and the Omega nebula, it's no coincidence: the camera used is called OmegaCAM. So the choice makes sense! By the way, it's expected to generate 30 terabytes of raw data per year.

Again, the huge chunk of the sky VST sees is a big boon to astronomers. The entire field of the nebula can be seen all at the same time, for example, something usually done by mosaicking together a lot of much smaller images. This will make surveying for faint stars, galaxies, and other esoteric objects a whole lot easier.

And I expect we'll be seeing more breathtaking images from the 'scope soon... I'm rubbing my hands together in glee for the first pictures of spiral galaxies. Can you imagine? Those will be amazing. Hey ESO! Hurry up and release some!

ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: A. Grado/INAF-Capodimonte Observatory; ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute

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