Incredible VISTA of the cosmos

By Phil Plait | December 11, 2009 8:07 am

Astronomers with the European Southern Observatory have just revealed the first images from their new telescope called VISTA: the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy. If ever there was an appropriate name for a ‘scope, that’s it.


Here’s why:


Oh baby. Yeah, click it to embiggen.

This image is of the Flame Nebula, a star forming gas cloud in Orion. The image itself covers about half a square degree on the sky (twice the area of the full Moon) and shows details of the nebula, including the core made up of stars invisible to optical telescopes. The bright star in the image is the monster blue supergiant Alnitak, which is the easternmost (left, to northern observers) star in Orion’s belt. Get a good look at it, because in a million years or so that star is gonna blow.

Can you spot the famous Horsehead Nebula in this picture? It looks a little different than you usually see it, because VISTA operates in the visible and near-infrared. It uses a 4.1 meter mirror (that’s big, folks) to suck down light from the sky. It is extremely sensitive and produces very high-resolution images… as you’d expect from a ‘scope that has a 67 million pixel detector.

That’s so many pixels you’d think they’d make an image you could zoom into. Oh wait: they did. You’ll have some fun playing with that; in fact, if you spend more than 14 minutes playing with it you’ll have spent longer than it took to take this image! That’s right, that gorgeous shot is only a 14 minute exposure.

vista_starfieldHere’s another phenomenal picture. It’s an amazing 2 x 1.5 degree field toward the center of the Milky Way, revealing about a million stars! It’s taken completely in the near infrared, just outside of what the human eye can see, and shows dust and stars mostly invisible in optical light. As you can see, the center of our Galaxy is a mess. Getting images in different wavelengths of light allows us to get a better handle on what’s happening in this incredibly crowded volume of space.

And yeah, this image is zoomable too. You absolutely want to take that little tour; I literally gasped when I saw it.

vista_fornaxThere’s also this very pretty shot of the Fornax galaxy cluster, a collection of galaxies 60 million light years away. This 25 minute exposure captures quite a few galaxies. Like before, it’s shots like this that help scientists get a handle on not just individual objects, but the environment in which they live, too. If you want to see that environment for yourself, why, tour the zoomable image.

vista_detectorFinally, let me leave you with this remarkable photo, showing the VISTA camera itself. Note the dude standing on the left. VISTA is huge! It weighs three tons, and I suspect most of that is the support equipment for it, including a dewar that holds the liquid nitrogen needed to cool the detector down to -200° C. See the glass in the front? That’s the largest IR-transparent window ever created.

It’s hard to believe that such a hulking camera can take such fine, detailed images, but that’s how these things work. A lot of times in astronomy, bigger is better… especially when it allows us to take such deep images of the cosmos.

Credits: Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit; ESO/Y. Beletsky.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (44)

Links to this Post

  1. VISTA increible del cosmos | December 11, 2009
  2. Few things make me cry. | December 11, 2009
  3. Friday Starlinks | December 11, 2009
  4. | December 12, 2009
  1. Oh baby!
    ‘Scuse me while I submit this to Digg.
    Be right back!

    Wow! That’s superb!
    I hope the WISE spacecraft gets launched tomorrow (or soon afterward) so we can have more of this stuff to soak up!
    The day after tomorrow I have a podcast on infrared astronomical instrumentation (with Dr. Mike Skrutskie of UVa) on the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast if any of you IR-minded folks are interested!

    Again, WOW!

  2. A telescope named Vista?

    “Are you sure you want to view the cosmos?”
    “Really sure?”
    “Would you like to view the cosmos using administrator priviliges?”
    yeah, but I don’t have them. This was a lot easier with XP.

  3. DrFlimmer

    That’s an amazing ‘scope!



  4. Jim

    WOW! This is why I love this hobby!!

  5. Ohio Mike

    Hey BA,

    On the left side of the Fornax galaxy cluster pic there are some spirals that look remarkably similar to the Norway Spiral from earlier this week. I’ve never seen artifacts like these. What are they?


    @ CafeenMan,

    Yeah, that’s exactly why I have not bothered installing Vista nor Windows 7 — there are always teething problems with new OS systems. Windows XP SP3 works just fine; if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it!

  7. Holy crap, that’s gorgeous. Thanks Phil.

  8. Bryan

    Sudo ViewTheGalaxy -e

  9. Ohio Mike (#5) Those are reflections of the stars themselves inside the telescope/detector optics. You can see them in almost any telescope image of bright stars, but they are not always this obvious. We call them “haloes” usually. Sometimes they can be completely detached from the star image and appear several pixels away; those are called “ghosts”. Saw them in STIS images all the time, like in this one.

  10. Roy

    This is one of my favorite articles yet, sir. I’m going to drool at my screen for a few hours now, thanks!

  11. Rats! Cafeenman beat me to it! :)

    These are truly awe inspiring! A nice treat to wake up to this Caturday!
    Thanks, Phil!

  12. Michel

    What kinda cars do astronomers use to drive around with?

  13. Brian S.

    That’s some Bad-ASS Astronomy!

  14. Horsehead Nebula! Infrared! Woot!

  15. Michelle R

    Oh my gosh. I think I DO see the horsehead nebula… It’s very different indeed.

  16. CafeenMan (#2):
    (Darn. Beat me to it.)

    A telescope named Vista?
    “Would you like to view the cosmos using administrator priviliges?”
    yeah, but I don’t have them. This was a lot easier with XP.

    When they get the “Wide Infrared Nanospectrometer 7” upgrade, you won’t have such problems with the UAC (Universe Administration Console).

  17. VISTA is huge! It weighs three tons, and I suspect most of that is the support equipment for it

    And here I thought you were making a Windows/Microsoft joke! 😀

  18. KC
  19. Bill


    I’m gonna sit back and enjoy this image for awhile, but eventually I’ll have to re-calibrate the top setting on my Wowmeter again. Every time I think I’ve seen the coolest thing that could ever possibly be, something like this comes along and beats it.

  20. Dennis

    I’m experiencing some pareidolia…
    The first thing I saw when I looked at that first image was the face of Cthulhu!
    It must be a sign! But a sign of what?!?

  21. skylyre

    Ok THAT IS AWESOME!!!!11! And deserves caps lock shouting goodness since I can’t shout that out at work right now. I love the white tunnely-looking part just below the center, even though I don’t know what it is. It looks like a lot of stars are tucked in there illuminating that spot.

    Oh yeah – does anyone else see the dragon head inside the Flame Nebula? Kinda looks like it’s breathing the fire heh.

    I <3 humans. We make some amazing stuff.

    And lol cafeenman :)

  22. Holy crap – there’s a galaxy in there. In the flame nebula picture, about an inch below Alnitak in Phil’s picture above. Zoom in on it. Voila! Spiral galaxy in the midst of all that mess.

  23. fred edison

    I’m flabbergasted by these awe inspiring astronomy photos. The zoom is so detailed it almost takes your breath away. It’s an incredibly violent and astonishingly beautiful universe we live in. Thanks to the evolution of technology & science, we’re able to see and appreciate these views into the universe that other humans could only dream of. Nice.

  24. Jim

    Nitpick: the last photo doesn’t link to a larger version of itself, but a different image of the observatory entirely.

  25. gypkap

    The center of the Milky Way photo reminds me of the saying “Billions and Billions,” even though Johnny Carson, who was a Questar owner, said it and not Carl Sagan.

  26. thaneb

    FYI this is link to page of Vista camera (embiggen of photo on this site sends to another image of scope but not camera)
    On this ESO page the image can be “embiggened.”

  27. molybdenumfist

    That is one seriously embiggened camera.

  28. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Magnificent! 😀

    Grand vista indeed! Thanks BA. :-)

    If I recall right, (& I could well be mistaken) isn’t there another flame nebula which, instead of being illuminated by Alnitak, has a star illuminating it that is the one of the three famous “runaway” stars : AE Aurigae, 53 Arietis & MU Columbae – or perhaps another star of the same class.

    Ie. Runaway high velocity stars that got kicked out of their original path / multiple stars system or binary due to a supernova or gravitational interaction?

    – StevoR (aka Plutonium being from Pluto & more.)

    PS. Hmmm … I see my comment here is now awaiting moderation. Am I in trouble? Sorry if I’ve done anything wrong. I did try to post a lot of links the other day under a diff. moniker which got (wrongly) marked as spam. It then wouldn’t let me post with my original email address so I used an alternate one. Is that part of it?

    Moderators – could you please explain so I can avoid whatever I did wrong in future? Jus’ so we know – What is the limit on the number of links you can post here?

  29. Brian G

    Oh baby. Yeah, click it to embiggen.

    Do I have a dirty mind or did anybody else find that a little…

  30. I may be mistaken here, and if so, I will gladly endure unbearable mucking and ridicule ( :) ), but I thought this was the ‘Orion Nebula’? Does it also go by the moniker ‘Flame Nebula’ as well?

    Plutonium being:
    I think messages get caught up in spam when someone tries to post using a new name. Not sure though.

  31. Bill

    wow. just wow.

    Okay, now the real comment: it seems that astronomers are at risk of putting fantasy artists out of business! This reminds me of a poster I had on my dorm wall in college – only that wasn’t real, this is. And it turns out that “truth IS greater than fiction!”

    Beautiful, just beautiful.

  32. 6. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE Says:

    @ CafeenMan,

    Yeah, that’s exactly why I have not bothered installing Vista nor Windows 7 — there are always teething problems with new OS systems. Windows XP SP3 works just fine; if it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it!

    I’m using XP, and only went to that after it had undergone at least one Service Pack. I also agree with Steve Gibson (grc[dot]com/ Security Now on twit[dot]tv) that the initial release probably has some (totally unintentional) security holes (in fact, SSL, the security protocol for the Internet/Web was ‘broken’, and there’s an episode of Security Now that explains how it happened). Once the first SP is released, there’s usually much better security though many holes may not have been found.
    Heck, I used NT 4 until there were so many USB peripherals that I couldn’t find a scanner or external drive that didn’t use USB. Then, on Win2K (along with Gibson) until XP had the second SP, which means I could buy a new system with XP.
    Oh, and as for XP SP3, one of the computers at the radio station I worked at had d/l’d it automatically, but messed up the Update process until I uninstalled SP3.


  33. Nigel Depledge

    Ivan3Man (6) said:

    . . . new OS systems

    Aaaagh! You have RAS* Syndrome!

    *Recursive Acronym Syndrome . . .

  34. Nigel Depledge

    Michael L (33) said:

    I may be mistaken here, and if so, I will gladly endure unbearable mucking and ridicule ( ), but I thought this was the ‘Orion Nebula’? Does it also go by the moniker ‘Flame Nebula’ as well?

    There’s more than one nebula in Orion.

    The Orion Nebula is in Orion’s “sword”. This nebula, being close to Alnitak in our field of view, is at one end of Orion’s belt.

  35. Uh, so where did the embiggened version go? I only get to a page saying the ESO website has been restructured.

  36. Following up to myself: Both the press release and the picture are gone from the ESO website. We can hope it will be fixed when the ESO webmasters come to work in a few hours.

  37. Dear visitors,

    ESO changed the website structure, therefore the links above in the article are no longer active to the high resolution images,
    so here are the right links in the whole original press release:

    Greetings and enjoy,

  38. Thanks Simon; I updated the links in the post.

  39. @Phil
    Cool, but you forgot the big image link.
    I assume this is very important, right?

  40. Speculator

    That top picture reminds me of a 6 dimensional Colabi-Yau 6 dimensional model. (Higher Dimensions string theory):


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar