Four Telescope Link-Up Creates World’s Largest Mirror
View of the starry sky from the site of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Cerro Paranal (credit: Yuri Beletsky/ESO)
Astronomers have created the world’s largest virtual optical telescope, linking four telescopes in Chile so that they operate as a single device.
The telescopes of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory form a virtual mirror of 130m (424ft) in diameter.
A previous attempt to link the telescopes last March failed.
Thursday’s link-up was the system’s scientific verification - the final step before scientific work starts.
Linking all four units of the VLT will give scientists a much more detailed look at the Universe than previous experiments using just two or three telescopes to create a virtual mirror.
The process that links separate telescopes together is known as interferometry.
In this mode, the VLT becomes the biggest ground-based optical telescope on Earth.
Besides creating a gigantic virtual mirror, interferometry also greatly improves the telescope’s spatial resolution and zooming capabilities.
The VLT is one of several telescopes in the Atacama Desert set up by the European Southern Observatory (Eso).
Eso is an international research organisation headquartered in Munich, Germany, and sponsored by 15 member countries.
Even prior to the start of the operation, as the domes of the four VLT units opened on the desert mountaintop, excitement filled the Paranal Observatory’s tiny control room.
It was going to be a special night, said one of the astronomers.
The head of instrumentation at Paranal, Frederic Gonte, called the event a “milestone in our quest for uncovering secrets of the Universe”.
“It’s an extremely important step because now we know that we’re ready to do real science,” he tld BBC News.
“From now on, we’ll be able to observe things we were not able to observe before.”
To link the VLT units, the team of international astronomers and engineers used an instrument called Pionier, which replaces a multitude of mirrors with a single optical microchip.
Although the first attempt to combine the four telescopes occurred in March 2011, it did not really work, said Jean-Philippe Berger, a French astronomer involved in the project.
But this time, it was already pretty clear that all the instruments were working correctly, he added.
“Last time, the atmospheric conditions and vibrations in the system were so bad that the data was just worthless,” he recalled. “We stopped after half an hour knowing that it wouldn’t improve.
“So, this attempt is the real first one to carry out observations for several hours straight to test the system in different conditions.”
From now on, the system will be offered to the astronomical community, he added - any astronomer working at Paranal or visiting the observatory will be able to use it.