VISTA produces spectacular panoramic view of the distant Universe

Posted by pt91 at Mar 28, 2012 04:10 PM |
University of Leicester is partner in telescope that has provided new detailed image

Issued by the STFC on 21 March 2012

The most detailed infrared image ever taken of a region of space large enough to be representative of the distant Universe has been released by a team led by the University of Edinburgh. The image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) VISTA telescope reveals more than 200,000 galaxies, including the most distant seen to date in the early Universe. These objects formed less than one billion years after the Big Bang. The new image comes from the first year of data taken as part of the five-year UltraVISTA survey. It was made by combining more than six thousand separate images - equivalent to an exposure time of 55 hours.

The image forms part of a huge collection of fully processed images from all the VISTA surveys that is now being made available by ESO to astronomers worldwide. It comes as a result of the VISTA telescope being trained on the same patch of sky repeatedly to slowly accumulate the very dim light from the most distant galaxies. On this colour composite of the UltraVISTA image, the large white objects with haloes are foreground stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy. A host of other galaxies can be seen, from relatively nearby galaxies which appear large enough to discern their structures, to the most distant galaxies which appear as red dots in this image.

Professor Jim Emerson, of Queen Mary, University of London, Principal Investigator for the construction of VISTA, commented: "These superbly detailed images of such a large area of the distant Universe are an exciting first return for the ten years the team spent getting VISTA from an idea to a successful reality." 

The UltraVISTA survey area coincides with the location of the largest optical image taken with the European Space Agency/NASA Hubble Space Telescope, called the COSMOS survey. The COSMOS field is an apparently almost empty patch of sky, but the combination of the existing Hubble optical imaging and the new VISTA near-infrared data has shown it to be a treasure trove for a wide range of astronomical studies. The final UltraVISTA image is expected to reveal objects five to ten times fainter still, enabling the study of galaxy evolution over essentially all of cosmic time.

Commenting on these revolutionary new images, Professor James Dunlop from the University of Edinburgh who led the team behind this work said: "Until recently our view back to the first epoch of galaxy formation has been limited to tiny, ‘pencil-beam’ images made with the Hubble Space Telescope. Now VISTA, with its panoramic imaging capability, is providing us with the first view of truly representative regions of the young Universe. This image is just a first taste of what the UltraVISTA survey will ultimately provide."

The image combines exposures taken through five different near-infrared filters using the new VISTA telescope which is located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile.

Professor John Peacock, Head of University of Edinburgh's Institute for Astronomy said: "UK astronomers can be very proud of this achievement. Until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, UltraVISTA gives us the best view we will have of the large-scale distribution of the earliest galaxies”.

The design and construction of VISTA was also led from Edinburgh, at the STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC). UKATC sits alongside the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh (ROE), providing a vibrant environment combining academic and technological excellence.

The camera for the telescope was part-built at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Full details of the VISTA consortium are below.

Additional information

The European Southern Observatory has also issued a press release (link opens in a new window)on UltraVISTA.

More details of the COSMOS survey can be found here: (link opens in a new window)

For more details of the role of the UK ATC in VISTA see: (link opens in a new window)

Images available

The latest images from VISTA can be found on ESO’s press release (link opens in a new window)

Further images of VISTA can be found on the ESO website (link opens in a new window)

There are more images on the UltraVISTA website (link opens in a new window)


James S. Dunlop

Institute for Astronomy, University of Edinburgh, Royal Observatory
Edinburgh, UK

Tel: +44 131 668 8477


Lucy Stone

Press Office

STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory

Tel: +44 (0)1235 445 627

Mob: +44 (0)7920 870125

Further information

VISTA consortium

Queen Mary, University of London is the lead institute of the VISTA consortium. VISTA was project managed by STFC's UK ATC. The camera for the telescope was part-built at STFC’s RAL Space.

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
• University of Leicester
• Liverpool John Moores University
• University of Nottingham
• University of Oxford
• University of St Andrews
• University of Southampton
• University of Sussex
• University College London

The year 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the European Southern Observatory (ESO). ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, 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 two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

University of Edinburgh's Institute for Astronomy (link opens in a new window)

Queen Mary, University of London

Queen Mary, University of London is one of the UK's leading research-focused higher education institutions with some 16,900 undergraduate and postgraduate students.

It is amongst the largest of the colleges of the University of London. Queen Mary’s 3,800 staff deliver world class degree programmes and research across 21 academic departments and institutes, within three sectors: Science and Engineering; Humanities, Social Sciences and Laws; and the School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Queen Mary is ranked 11th in the UK according to the Guardian analysis of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, and has been described as ‘the biggest star among the research-intensive institutions’ by the Times Higher Education.

The College has a strong international reputation, with around 20 per cent of students coming from over 100 countries. Queen Mary has an annual turnover of £300 million, research income worth £70 million, and generates employment and output worth £600 million to the UK economy each year.

The College is unique amongst London's universities in being able to offer a completely integrated residential campus, with a 2,000-bed award-winning Student Village on its Mile End campus.


The Science and Technology Facilities Council is keeping the UK at the forefront of international science and tackling some of the most significant challenges facing society such as meeting our future energy needs, monitoring and understanding climate change, and global security.

The Council has a broad science portfolio and works with the academic and industrial communities to share its expertise in materials science, space and ground-based astronomy technologies, laser science, microelectronics, wafer scale manufacturing, particle and nuclear physics, alternative energy production, radio communications and radar.

STFC operates or hosts world class experimental facilities including:

• in the UK; ISIS pulsed neutron source, the Central Laser Facility, and LOFAR.  STFC is also the majority shareholder in Diamond Light Source Ltd.

• overseas; telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii

It enables UK researchers to access leading international science facilities by funding membership of international bodies including European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institut Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

STFC also has an extensive public outreach and engagement programme.  It is using its world leading research to inspire and enthuse schools and the general public about the impact and benefits that science can have on society.

STFC is one of seven publicly-funded research councils.  It is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

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About STFC

This press release originally appeared on the STFC website.


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