First stunning images captured by VISTA Telescope

A new UK-designed telescope, that can map the sky much faster and deeper than any other infrared telescope, has made its first release of stunning images. VISTA (the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) is the world’s largest telescope dedicated to mapping the sky in infrared light and will reveal a completely new view of the southern sky. The spectacular images of the Flame Nebula, the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy and the Fornax Galaxy Cluster show that VISTA, based at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile, is working extremely well.

Amongst other things, VISTA's surveys will help our understanding of the nature and distribution and origin of known types of stars and galaxies, map the 3-D structure of our galaxy, and help determine the relation between the 3-D structure of the Universe and the mysterious 'dark energy' and dark matter'. Samples of objects will also be followed up in detail with further observations by other telescopes and instruments such as the nearby Very Large Telescope (VLT).

The Minister of State for Science and Innovation Lord Drayson, said, "This outstanding example of UK kit is revealing our universe's deepest secrets. I eagerly await more images from VISTA, which builds on our reputation as a world-leading centre for astronomy."

The first released image shows the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), a spectacular star-forming cloud of gas and dust in the familiar constellation of Orion (the Hunter) and its surroundings. In visible light the core of the object is hidden behind thick clouds of dust, but the VISTA image, taken at infrared wavelengths, can penetrate the murk and reveal the cluster of hot young stars hidden within. The wide field of view of the VISTA camera also captures the glow of NGC 2023 and the ghostly form of the famous Horsehead Nebula.

The second image is a mosaic of two VISTA views towards the centre of our Milky Way galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer). Vast numbers of stars are revealed — this single picture shows about one million stars — and the majority are normally hidden behind thick dust clouds and only become visible at infrared wavelengths.

For the final image, VISTA has stared far beyond our galaxy to take a family photograph of a cluster of galaxies in the constellation of Fornax (the Chemical Furnace). The wide field allows many galaxies to be captured in a single image including the striking barred-spiral NGC 1365 and the big elliptical galaxy NGC 1399.

VISTA was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 Universities in the UK led by Queen Mary University of London and is an in-kind contribution to ESO as part of the UK’s accession agreement. The telescope design and construction were project managed by STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC). VISTA was formally handed over to ESO at a ceremony at ESO’s Headquarters in Garching, Germany, attended by representatives of Queen Mary, University of London and STFC on 10 December 2009 and will now be operated by ESO.

“VISTA is a unique addition to ESO’s observatory on Cerro Paranal. It will play a pioneering role in surveying the southern sky at infrared wavelengths and will find many interesting targets for study by the future European Extremely Large Telescope,” says Professor Tim de Zeeuw, ESO Director General.

Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, said, “This innovative telescope, designed by the UK, will give us unparalleled observing of the southern skies and will help to reveal some of the deepest secrets of the Universe like the nature of Dark Matter and Dark Energy.”

Professor John Womersley, Director of Science Programmes at STFC, added, “The handover of VISTA marks a major milestone for UK astronomy, strengthens our relationship with ESO and enhances our capabilities in an area of science where the UK has a particular strength.”

Observing at wavelengths longer than those visible with the human eye allows VISTA to study a wide range of objects, including stars hidden by interstellar dust, very cool stars that are hard to detect in visible light and the most distant galaxies where the light is stretched beyond the visible into the infrared by the expansion of the Universe. To avoid swamping the faint infrared radiation coming from space, the VISTA camera has to be cooled to -200 degrees Celsius and is sealed with the largest infrared-transparent window ever made. The camera was designed and built by a consortium including the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the UK ATC and the University of Durham.

Kim Ward, the camera manager from STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, said, “At the heart of VISTA is a 3-tonne camera containing 16 special detectors sensitive to infrared light with a combined total of 67 million pixels.”

Professor Ian Robson, Head of the STFC UK ATC, added, “We're immensely proud of what we've achieved in providing the astronomical community with the VISTA telescope. The exceptional quality of the scientific data is a tribute to all the scientists and engineers who were involved in this exciting and challenging project.”

Because VISTA is a large telescope that also has a large field of view it can both detect faint sources and also cover wide areas of sky quickly. Each VISTA image captures an area of sky about ten times as large as the full Moon and it will be able to detect and catalogue objects over the whole southern sky with a sensitivity that is forty times greater than achieved with earlier infrared sky surveys such as the highly successful Two Micron All-Sky Survey. This jump in observational power, comparable to the step in sensitivity from the unaided eye to Galileo’s first telescope, will reveal vast numbers of new objects and allow the creation of far more complete inventories of rare and exotic objects in the southern sky.

Professor Jim Emerson, leader of the VISTA consortium from Queen Mary University London (QMUL), is looking forward to a rich harvest of science from the new telescope, “History has shown us that the most exciting things that come out of projects like VISTA are what you least expect — and I’m very excited to see what these will be!”

Notes for editors

Images & Video
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password: newviews

A — The Hidden Fires of the Flame Nebula

B — The Dark Heart of the Milky Way

C — The Fornax Cluster of Galaxies

D — VISTA: the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy

E — Details of the VISTA Flame Nebula Image

F — Details of the VISTA Galactic Centre Image

G — Details of the Fornax Galaxy Cluster image

H — Visible/IR comparison of the VISTA Flame Nebula Image

I — Visible/IR comparison of the VISTA Galactic Centre Image

J — VISTA’s Giant Infrared Camera

K — The region of Orion’s Belt and the Flame Nebula

L— Wide-field View of the Centre of the Galaxy

M — Wide-field view of the Fornax Galaxy Cluster

VISTA consortium
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 is 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


• VISTA information:
• VISTA handout:
• VISTA Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):
• VISTA HD video compilation:


Professor Jim Emerson
Queen Mary, University of London
Tel: +44 (0) 794 127 1548

Julia Maddock
Science and Technology Facilities Council
Tel: +44 (0) 1793 44 2094

Julia Short
Science and Technology Facilities Council
Tel: +44 (0) 1793 44 2012

Sian Halkyard
QMUL press office
Tel: +44 (0)20 7882 7454
Mobile:+44 (0)7970 096175

Richard Hook
Tel: +49 89 32006 655

Science and Technology Facilities Council The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.
The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:
The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also owns and operates telescopes in Hawaii and La Palma (Canary Islands) and contributes to the operations of facilities in Chile and Australia, together with the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility at the Jodrell Bank Observatory.