The universe just got a little smaller, thanks to a new project from the European Southern Observatory in Chile. One of the primary goals of the project was to integrate the operation of its four Unit Telescopes together to create a Very Large Telescope (VLT), an optical telescope with the largest collecting area in the world.
Thanks to an instrument named ESPRESSO, that goal has now been achieved. ESPRESSO stands for Echelle Spectrograph for Rocky Exoplanet and Stable Spectroscopic Observations, meaning it will be used to hunt for planets in orbit around distant stars
By exploiting the light-gathering capabilities of the individual VLTs, it has the light-gathering capacity of a 52-foot (16-meter) optical telescope. “ESO has realized a dream that dates back to the time when the VLT was conceived in the 1980s: bringing the light from all four Unit Telescopes on Cerro Paranal together at an incoherent focus to feed a single instrument!” Gaspare Lo Curto of ESO said in a statement.
In addition to searching for Earth-like planets, ESPRESSO will also examine the very nature of physics by observing the light emitted by far-off quasars. Using a system of prisms, mirrors, and lenses, the light from each individual telescope is transmitted to ESPRESSO as far as 226 feet (69 meters) away.
Thanks to the stability of the telescopes and the construction of the facility, ESPRESSO can combine the observations from all four telescopes together, or use the light received from a single telescope, allowing for maximum flexibility during a single observation. Check out the images at the ESO website for some truly breathtaking photos from the observatory.
“This impressive milestone is the culmination of work by a large team of scientists and engineers over many years,” said scientist Paolo Molaro. “It is wonderful to see ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes and I look forward to the exciting science results to come.”
The ESO calls their facility at Gaspara Lo Curto a “game changer” for astronomy. It uses high-resolution spectrographs and wavelength calibration to enable observations that were never possible before.
“Go big or go home” seems to be the motto for these astronomers, and ESO isn’t done yet, according to Director General Xavier Barcons. “ESPRESSO working with all four Unit Telescopes gives us an enticing foretaste of what the next generation of telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, will offer in a few years,” he said.