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Last Updated on Sunday, 02 May 2010 13:17
Published on Friday, 25 February 2005 00:00


The quest for answers to outstanding mysteries in our universe received a boost this week when British astronomers learned that their proposal for a special new telescope to survey southern skies has been approved. VISTA - the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy - is different from most ordinary large telescopes, which can only look at one very small patch of sky at a time. It will survey large areas of sky for very faint stars and galaxies. In a single exposure of only 10 minutes, it will be able capture the images of 100,000 objects.

Over time, data from the telescope will become a fundamental source of reference on the contents and layout of our own Galaxy and the myriads of galaxies that populate the universe, rather like a combination of a detailed map and a census. VISTA will conduct ground-breaking surveys using infrared detectors as well as looking at visible light. Infrared observations are crucial for studying newly forming stars and planetary systems, and the most distant galaxies.

The proposal to build the 4-metre-diameter (13-foot) telescope came from a consortium of 18 UK universities, led by Dr Jim Emerson of the Physics Department at Queen Mary and Westfield College (University of London). They hope to locate the telescope at one of the observatory sites in the high Atacama desert in the foothills of the Chilean Andes, where sky quality for astronomy is outstanding. It will be a significant advance over existing facilities for surveys of the southern sky, with its large mirror, wide field of view, sharp images and sensitive detectors for light and infrared radiation.

"We are thrilled to win funding," said Dr Emerson. "Astronomy is one of the UK's great scientific strengths and VISTA will help keep the UK in the forefront of research. It will help us to unravel the riddles of how the universe works by providing British astronomers with the tool needed for cutting-edge survey astronomy for years to come. It will truly provide us with a new vista on the universe surrounding us, both near and far."

The southern skies provide a particularly fruitful area for research as examples of many types of objects outside our Galaxy are best seen from the southern hemisphere. These are some of the science survey programmes VISTA will undertake:


  • The most distant objects in our Universe are very faint and very red: VISTA can observe these to understand both the origins of galaxies and the fate of the Universe.


  • Vast clouds of dust that blot out visible light limit the optical view of our own galaxy. VISTA will see through most of this dust in the infrared to map out the content of the Galaxy.


  • Stars, such as our own Sun, form surrounded by dust that blots out their visible light. VISTA's infrared surveys will probe through this dust to show where and how these stars form.


  • Closer to home VISTA will find many small bodies in the outer Solar System, allowing us to study the pristine pieces of material out of which it formed.


Whenever astronomers build a new and different telescope, some of the most exciting discoveries are totally unexpected. VISTA will probably be no exception.

VISTA will be a national facility for the UK. It should be ready for use by the beginning of 2004. The cost is expected to be about 25 million pounds. Funding of the project was announced on 10 May. It was among the first allocations from the 700 million pounds being provided by the 'Joint Infrastructure Fund' (JIF), an initiative of the UK Government's Department of Trade and Industry, the Wellcome Trust, and the Higher Education Funding Council for England. JIF is to enable UK universities to invest in new facilities and equipment that will underpin basic research projects and ensure British Universities remain at the forefront of international scientific research.

Universities in the Consortium are (in alphabetical order) Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Hertfordshire, Keele, Central Lancashire, Leicester, Liverpool John Moores, Nottingham, Oxford, Queen Mary & Westfield College, Queen's University Belfast, St Andrews, Southampton, Sussex, University College London.

Issued by:
Dr Jacqueline Mitton, RAS Public Relations Officer
Office & home phone: Cambridge ((0)1223) 564914
FAX: Cambridge ((0)1223) 572892
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Dr Jim Emerson (Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London) Phone: (+44) (0)171 975 5040 email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.