The new VLT Survey Telescope delivers spectacular images

By Phil Plait | June 8, 2011 7:32 am

[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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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (27)

  1. Gary Ansorge

    It’s 09:30 here in Georgia. I just wonder what you’re doing up and posting at 07:30. Do you EVER sleep?

    Thanks for the beautiful images.

    Gary 7

  2. Sam H

    If they can have single shots of unbelievably high resolution a whole frickin’ degree wide, just think of what they could do with a mosaic of several of these shots…damn…(well, if that’s possible).

    And I thought that Omega Centauri was the largest globular cluster (well, in our sky at least, but it would make sense if it was also the largest in the galaxy). Are there larger ones we’ve found that are a whole lot farther away? And also – Omega Centauri is so big that some have theorized it’s a former galaxy, complete with central black hole. Any thoughts on that one?

  3. Buckley

    The englobulenated version of the first image makes my soul hurt. When I pick two stars that appear very close together, and then think about how they are actually light years apart, I feel an overwhelming sense of uselessness.

  4. davem

    I assume that globular clusters are not spinning like galaxies – otherwise they would be flattened elipses? So what holds their shape – why don”t they gravitationally collapse into a black hole?

  5. Gary Ansorge

    3. Buckley

    “I feel an overwhelming sense of uselessness.”

    If by that you mean “insignificant”, welcome to the club. On the other hand, while the universe impels us toward humbleness, what is truly amazing is that a mere 3 lb clump of neurons can apprehend this magnificence and appreciate it.

    THAT makes me feel not at all useless,,,

    GAry 7

  6. @ Buckley:

    To steal a line from Commander John J. Adams,* “That thing out there…it’s you!”

    Seriously, I don’t know why any of this could make a person feel insignificant. Small, maybe, and even that in the physical sense alone. Every single photograph like this gives me a personal boost, and spotting cool stuff with the naked eye or through a telescope, well, that’s like looking in one of those funhouse mirrors that makes your head expand.

    *Props for recognizing the reference.

  7. TMB

    @davem: They have some rotation, but mostly they’re supported by velocity dispersion: each star is moving in a random direction. Essentially, each star is on an orbit in the potential of the cluster, just like each star in a spiral galaxy is in an orbit in the potential of the galaxy, but in the cluster those orbits are oriented randomly instead of all being in a flat plane like in the galaxy.

  8. flash

    My god. It’s full of stars!

  9. AF

    My desktop will love starry wallpapers in this resolution.

  10. Liath

    Does anyone have any thoughts on what the sky would look like if you were a resident on a planet in the Omega Cen cluster?

  11. CB

    @ Liath:

    1) Really bright.

    2) Freaking amazing!

    I love globs. They’re pretty much my favorite object to look at for pure mind-blowing beauty. In a hobbyist scope you can make out plenty of individual stars, but they tend to blur into a bright smear towards the center. It conveys the idea of these things containing ridiculous numbers of stars much better than the completely smooth view of a galaxy gives. I know a galaxy can contain billions of stars, but I can see the glob is stuffed with stars.

  12. Quiet Desperation

    the internet-choking … 280 MB version.

    Pfft. That’s one minute of HD streaming from Netflix to my Roku box.

    I feel an overwhelming sense of uselessness.

    Er… so… go do something useful?

    I never bought into the whole “the vastness of the universe humbles me” thing. Why should it? I’m smarter than pretty much all of it. At the end of the day it’s just a bunch of minerals and gasses whereas I can compose a poem or create something else of beauty.

    Sentience rocks, dude.

  13. twfeline

    Looks like we have ourselves a comet-finder instrument. I quickly spotted a comet in the lower left corner, near the left edge of the pic. Anybody know what that cute barred spiral (almost ring) galaxy is called, below and a touch left of the center of the cluster?

  14. CB

    @ Quiet Desperation:

    Omega Centauri beats anything you could ever dream of creating in the beauty department, and it wasn’t even trying. Sorry.

  15. DrFlimmer

    @ Gary Ansorge:

    In the past, I’m quite sure, Phil used to go to sleep at 7:30 am, after closing out his ‘scope. ;)
    However, I’m also quite sure that Phil, in these days, saves these posts earlier and specifies the hour of their release.

    Btw: The feeling of insignificance makes me wonder, why there are so many people who think “I am the Master of the Universe”, while even their major energy source (the sun) can easily wipe them out. The “uselessness” gets mixed with anger in such moments….

  16. Gary Ansorge

    16. DrFlimmer

    We WISH we were the center of the universe. The universe however, appears to think otherwise,,,

    We’ve had it really good on this picayune planet. We’ve exercised power over nearly all the life(barring a few pesky viruses and bacteria) on the planet. We change the course of rivers, tap the earths internal heat, burn billions of years of organic fuel and have landed on our satellite and because of all that we think we’re the cats meow but, it’s all much ado about controlling a grain of sand.

    Anger is just the flip side of fear and both give rise to arrogance(which is just an ego defense mechanism). Personally, I don’t have time to worry about being Master of anything. I’m just happy to still be here, appreciating the universes dance.

    Gary 7

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Gary Ansorge : Well, the whole universe is rushing away from us and technically we are at the centre – as is everything else! ;-)

    On how the size of the cosmos makes us feel – I find it oddly reassuring myself.

    It puts everything else in perspective, all the little problems and issues and messes we make here matter but aren’t the end of things, there is so much we have yet to learn and see and understand. There is something out there that is incomprehensibly bigger and older and more powerful than we are – the cosmos at large if maybe not God as we usually think of the idea.

    The astronomical grand scope and scale of everything can make us feel small and insignificant and humble – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Yet everything is relative and we create our own uses and signifiance. I matter to my dog and cat, to my family and friends. You do too to your pets (if you have any) and family and friends. Uselessness like beauty and art is in the eye of the beholder. We make purpose and meaning for ourselves to some degree.

    Thinking of which, beauty and art and science combine well in images like this one – I shall never tire of seeing things like this glorious picture. :-)

    There’s a thought of our use and value in that we can capture such images, share and record them and that minds like human minds are as far as we know incredibly rare and precious amidst all the cosmic scheme of things.

    Perhaps, cosmically speaking, our use is to be here to marvel at the wonders so vastly huge about us, to appreciate and enjoy and share them? To explore and understand them? Perhaps it is to make this world better and happier however slightly than it would have been otherwise without us?

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    @4. davem :

    I assume that globular clusters are not spinning like galaxies – otherwise they would be flattened elipses? So what holds their shape – why don”t they gravitationally collapse into a black hole?

    Safer to assume that they *are* spinning than not, methinks.
    Almost everything in the universe rotates although at vastly different velocities.
    I’m pretty sure that globular clusters are no exception.

    Globular clusters (globs) are held together by the stalemate of gravity and kinetic energy, the stars’ orbital motion around their central core.

    Globs sometimes (usually?) do have black holes – intermediate mass rather than the supermassive galactic core variety – at their hearts or so I gather. Unless I am mistaken, they also do or can evapourate, having stars pulled out and lost by tidal interactions and have lost stars. Omega Centauri for instance has probably lost Kapteyn’s star a nearby fast-moving red dwarf that is now just tens rather than tens of thousands of light years distant from us.

    Globs can undergo core collapse where their central regions become densely packed and their outskirts loose and dispersed. I suspect but am not sure that theycan merge and be pulled apartand destroyed becoming streams of ancient stars. They are like almost everything in the cosmos, dynamic and individual entities. Small island universes unto themselves.

  19. Nigel Depledge

    Buckley (3) said:

    The englobulenated version of the first image makes my soul hurt. When I pick two stars that appear very close together, and then think about how they are actually light years apart, I feel an overwhelming sense of uselessness.

    So, can we have your liver, then?

  20. Quiet Desperation

    Omega Centauri beats anything you could ever dream of creating in the beauty department, and it wasn’t even trying. Sorry.

    You missed the point. Also, you know me enough to judge my skills, Mr. Thinks-He-Is-Psychic Art Critic?

    You’re also way overrating Omega Centauri. I could write a program to plot random stars in a 2D Gaussian distribution, and get pretty much the same thing. Note that the right brain hasn’t even entered the picture at this point.

    Sentience trumps everything. But, you know, you can sit there and feel useless if you want.

  21. CB

    I don’t need to know you at all to make my statement because I’d say the same thing to the greatest human artists ever.

    Also, you think the beauty of Omega Centauri is the same as the beauty of an arrangement of pixels in a 2D image. Like the Eiffel Tower is the same as a photograph of the tower, or a 3″ desktop model. So now I do know enough about you to judge you as not in the same order of magnitude as the greatest human artists, and thus more orders of magnitude away from the beauty of the cosmos. Sorry.

    And I don’t feel useless. Some other guy said they did, but not me. Humility and uselessness are not the same. Humility is often the inspiration for growth. For example someone may decide to learn more about this universe that is so much more vast than they can even comprehend, and become an astronomer. But why should you feel humbled by it, you asked? Why should anything make you feel humble? If you can do what you need to in life without ever feeling humble, that’s great. Just don’t let lack-of-humility become arrogance, which is the enemy of growth, because it makes one hide one’s flaws from oneself in order to maintain the arrogance.

    And on that note, going around saying “Sentience trumps everything” strikes me as the height of hubris when it has yet to even prove itself a survival advantage on biologically significant timescales, much less geologically, much less cosmologically. Our sentience is trumped by cockroaches. Want to do better? Then some humility is in order.

    Let’s reconvene in another million years and we’ll talk about our progress.

  22. Nigel Depledge

    CB (22) said:

    Also, you think the beauty of Omega Centauri is the same as the beauty of an arrangement of pixels in a 2D image. Like the Eiffel Tower is the same as a photograph of the tower, or a 3″ desktop model.

    Well, not really.

    To be able to resolve the stars in Omega Cen properly, you need a telescope and a long-exposure image.

    So, where’s the difference? A digitally-rendered facsimile would be pretty nearly the same as such a photograph.

    Such objects as the Tour Eiffel, OTOH, can be viewed in person by the unaided eye. So there is a difference there. Having said that, a creative photograph of it could be more beautiful than the actual object itself. And how much difference is there between that and a creative rendering?

  23. Dr J (ESO)

    @ Phil: I’m a little late here but I just wanted to point out that “VST” stands for “VLT Survey Telescope”, not “Very Large Survey Telescope” as it says in the post. Also: yes, we’ll hurry up to get you some pics of spiral galaxies.

  24. KaoS

    OK the acronyms are becoming hard to follow. It seems to me, in my (very) brief overview of clickable materials, that the folks at ESO are working towards being able to observe VERY LARGE pieces of sky with VERY LARGE bandwidth. That part’s pretty obvious.

    The part that’s screwing with the something’s-not-right-about-that part of my brain is the way VLT is being used like it’s the name of a project or some similar construct, rather than one specific telescope.

    Anyway, thank you Dr J, for taking notice of Phil’s error. It caused me to take a closer look at how these new images came to be, which is (for me) just as interesting as their contents.

    @ Phil: Thanks to you, also. Every time I visit you have something up that takes my mind to exactly the kinds of places it likes to visit. Keep up the great work!

  25. John Hunter

    I am looking forward to the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), currently under construction. 3.5 degree field of view (12x larger!), 3 gigapixels, and 30 terabytes per night of data!

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