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VISTA produces spectacular panoramic view of the distant Universe

The European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope has created the widest deep view of the sky ever made using infrared light.

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VISTA stares deep into the cosmos (Credit: UltraVISTA/Terapix/CNRS/CASU)
VISTA stares deep into the cosmos (Credit: UltraVISTA/Terapix/CNRS/CASU)

The image comes as a result of the telescope being trained on the same patch of sky repeatedly to slowly accumulate the very dim light of the most distant galaxies. The new picture 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.

Professor Jim Emerson from Queen Mary’s Astronomy Unit, and Principal Investigator for the construction of the VISTA telescope, 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 new image comes from the first year of data taken as part of the five-year UltraVISTA survey. A team at the University of Edinburgh combined more than six thousand separate exposures equivalent to an exposure time of 55 hours to create the image.

On the 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.

Commenting on these revolutionary new images, Professor James Dunlop from the University of Edinburgh who led the team behind the 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 UltraVISTA survey area coincides with the location of the largest optical image taken with the ESA/NASA Hubble Space Telescope, termed 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-ten times fainter still, enabling the study of galaxy evolution over essentially all of cosmic time.

The camera for the telescope was part-built at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

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