Spectacular new 'Tarantula' image captured by VISTA
11 Aug 2010



Astronomers have captured a spectacular new image in a region of our neighbouring galaxy known to have an abnormally high rate of star formation that reveals yet more details about its history and development

​VISTA Magellanic Cloud Survey view of the Tarantula Nebula

​VISTA Magellanic Cloud Survey view of the Tarantula Nebula

The picture, taken with the UK-designed and built VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) telescope, is of the Tarantula Nebula, a region in the Large Magellanic Cloud which contains many stars that can be difficult to detect because they are enshrouded in the gas and dust clouds from which they formed. Astronomers were able to take the image by using ESO’s (European Southern Observatory) VISTA telescope because it can pick up near infra-red light, which we cannot see ourselves, that has a longer wavelength of visible light, enabling it to penetrate much of the dust that would normally obscure our view.

The leader of the survey team, Maria-Rosa Cioni (University of Hertfordshire, UK) explains: "This view is of one of the most important regions of star formation in the local Universe — the spectacular 30 Doradus star-forming region, also called the Tarantula Nebula. At its core is a large cluster of stars called RMC 136, in which some of the most massive stars known are located."

The wide-field image shows a host of different objects. The bright area above the centre is the Tarantula Nebula itself, with the RMC 136 cluster of massive stars in its core. To the left is the NGC 2100 star cluster. To the right is the tiny remnant of the supernova SN1987A. Below the centre are a series of star-forming regions including NGC 2080 — nicknamed the “Ghost Head Nebula” — and the NGC 2083 star cluster.

The VISTA project was managed by The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) and the camera was constructed by STFC's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Professor Ian Robson, Head of UKATC said; “We are very proud of the wealth of data that the VISTA telescope is producing for the astronomical community; the spectacular images are not only telling us about new science, but look absolutely fantastic”.

The picture has been taken as part of ESO’s VISTA Magellanic Cloud (VMC) survey which will scan an area nearly a thousand times the apparent area of the full moon (184 square degrees). Chris Evans from the VMC team said; “The VISTA images will allow us to extend our studies beyond the inner regions of the Tarantula into the multitude of smaller stellar nurseries nearby, which also harbour a rich population of young and massive stars. Armed with the new, exquisite infrared images, we will be able to probe the cocoons in which massive stars are still forming today, while also looking at their interaction with older stars in the wider region.”

The VMC Survey is one of six huge near-infrared surveys of the southern sky that will take up most of the first five years of operations of VISTA.

STFC allows UK astronomers access to ESO’s telescopes through a subscription.

More details can be found on ESO’s Press Release (link opens in a new window).

Notes to editors


Images are available, please see ESO's Press Release (link opens in a new window) for more details.


  • Lucy Stone
    STFC Press Officer
    Rutherford Appleton Laboratory
    Tel: +44 (0)1235 445 627
    Mob: +44 (0)7920 870 125

Further information

VISTA is a 4m diameter telescope based in Chile operating at Infrared wavelengths.  It was provided by the UK to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) as an in-kind contribution and part of the UK’s joining fee.
Even before being formally handed over to ESO at the end of 2009 VISTA was used for two detailed studies of small sections of the sky before it embarked on the much larger surveys that are now in progress. One of these “Science Verification surveys” was a detailed study of the Sculptor Galaxy and its environment.

Further information about VISTA can be found on ESO's telescope pages (link opens in a new window).

VISTA consortium

VISTA is a £37 million project, funded by grants from the DTI's (now Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS)) Joint Infrastructure Fund and the STFC to Queen Mary, University of London, the lead institute of the VISTA consortium. VISTA was project managed by STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre. The camera was constructed by STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

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
  • Durham University
  • 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


ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research.

ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and VISTA, the world’s largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre Array), the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

For more information please contact: RAL Space Enquiries