Press release: 16 June 2010
A spectacular new image of the Sculptor Galaxy (a galaxy currently undergoing a period of intense star formation), has been captured by the UK-designed and built ESO (European Southern Observatory) VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) telescope, the world’s largest survey telescope with a mirror over 4 metres in diameter. The image, taken at the Paranal Observatory in the Chilean Atacama Desert, as part of its first major observational campaigns provides new information on the history and development of the galaxy.
The Sculptor Galaxy lies about 13 million light-years away and is the brightest member of a small collection of galaxies called the Sculptor Group, one of the closest such groupings to our own Local Group of galaxies. It was discovered by Caroline Herschel from England in 1783 and is prominent enough to be seen with good binoculars but dust obscures the view of many parts of the galaxy because VISTA (Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) works at infrared wavelengths it can see right through the dust that is such a prominent feature of the Sculptor Galaxy.
The stunning image shows the galaxy is almost edge on, with the spiral arms clearly visible in the outer parts, along with a bright core at its centre. It also reveals huge numbers of cooler stars that are barely detectable with visible-light telescopes.
Astronomers are studying the numerous cool red giant stars in the halo that surrounds the Sculptor Galaxy, measuring the composition of some of small dwarf satellite galaxies, and searching for as yet undiscovered new objects such as globular clusters and ultra-compact dwarf galaxies that would otherwise be invisible without the dust-penetrating VISTA infrared images. Using the unique VISTA data astronomers plan to map how the galaxy formed and evolved.
Professor Richard Holdaway, Director, Space Science and Technology Department at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory where the camera for the telescope was part-built, said; “The level of detail shown in images from VISTA is clearly unprecedented. Together with further observations by other telescopes, including ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) located on the next mountain peak, astronomers are able to build the clearest pictures to date of the Sculptor Galaxy, telling us more about its history and the way it formed”.
Professor Ian Robson, Head of STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre which manages the VISTA project, said: "We, at the UKATC, are absolutely delighted that VISTA is delivering excellent science for the European community of astronomers and look forward to continued working with ESO to ensure the facility remains at the forefront of world science."
Notes for editors
After being handed over to ESO at the end of 2009 the telescope 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 “mini surveys” was a detailed study of the Sculptor Galaxy and its environment. Further information can be found on ESO's VISTA (link opens in a new window) and VLT (link opens in a new window) pages.
For more information on the images that accompany this press release please see the ESO website (link opens in a new window).
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 was 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
- 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