Giant Telescopes Expand Universe Astronomers Can See 14 Billion Light-Years from Mountaintop in Chile

By Tribune, Chicago | The Florida Times Union, April 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Giant Telescopes Expand Universe Astronomers Can See 14 Billion Light-Years from Mountaintop in Chile


Tribune, Chicago, The Florida Times Union


CERRO PARANAL, Chile -- From this mountaintop deep in the red Atacama desert, Venus and Mars glow in a night sky thick with a billion stars of the Milky Way.

The really impressive view of the heavens, however, is inside the bunkerlike control room that processes images from VLT1, the first of the mountain's array of four giant telescopes.

On the computer screen, a brilliant white galaxy, shaped like a sombrero with a gold rim of stars, appears in perfect detail. Another yellow-centered galaxy, 100 million light-years away, swirls with long-reaching arms of blue stars, one arm fractured by the passing of another galaxy.

What thrills astronomers, however, are the fainter celestial objects on the screen, indistinct circles of red light. These are galaxies 14 billion light-years away, so far at the fringes of the universe that they have never been seen before.

With one of the new VLTs -- Very Large Telescopes -- at Cerro Paranal, astronomers can find thousands of such objects in a night. When all four telescopes are linked, using groundbreaking optics technology called interferometry, researchers will be able to look 10,000 times further into the universe than ever before possible, back through time nearly 95 percent of the way to the Big Bang itself.

"This telescope will change astronomy as a science," said Jason Spyromilio, a Greek supernova researcher and one of the staff astronomers at Cerro Paranal. "It's the most amazing thing I've ever used."

Already, using just one of the telescopes, scientists have found strong evidence that the universe will continue racing outward indefinitely, rather than eventually collapsing into itself in a Big Crunch.

With the four telescopes working together -- two are now on line -- they will be able to peer for the first time into the mouth of black holes. They will be able to distinctly see planets in other solar systems and examine them for signs of life.

They hope, too, to spot the first stars and galaxies ever born in the universe, their light from the dawn of time only now reaching Earth.

"We want to see the first stars shining," said Massimo Tarenghi, the Italian director of the observatory. "This will be a totally new domain."

The telescopes, the largest in the world and the first of their design, are a $700 million project of the European Southern Observatory, a coalition of eight European nations that also run a smaller observatory in the Chilean desert, near La Serena.

Each has an 8.2-meter (27-foot) diameter curved ceramic mirror, about as thick as the length of a dollar bill, coated with a thin polish of aluminum. …

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