London: Astronomers have created the world’s largest virtual optical telescope by linking four telescopes in Chile so that they operate as a single device.
The telescopes of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal observatory form a virtual mirror of 130 metres in diameter, and a previous attempt to link the telescopes last March had failed.
The link-up was the system’s scientific verification, which was the final step before scientific work starts.
Linking all four units of the VLT is expected to give scientists a much more detailed look at the universe as compared to previous experiments using just two or three telescopes to create a virtual mirror.
The process that links separate telescopes together is known as interferometry. In this mode, the VLT becomes the biggest ground-based optical telescope on earth.
Besides creating a gigantic virtual mirror, interferometry also greatly improves the telescope’s spatial resolution and zooming capabilities.
The VLT is one of several telescopes in the Atacama Desert, set up by the European Southern Observatory (Eso).
Eso is an international research organisation headquartered in Munich, Germany, and sponsored by 15 member countries.
Even prior to the start of the operation, as the domes of the four VLT units opened on a desert mountaintop in Chile, excitement filled the Paranal observatory’s tiny control room.
One of the astronomers said that it was going to be a special night.
The head of instrumentation at Paranal, Frederic Gonte, called the event a “milestone in our quest for uncovering secrets of the universe”.
“It’s an extremely important step because now we know that we’re ready to do real science,” the BBC quoted him as saying.
“From now on we’ll be able to observe things we were not able to observe before,” he said.
To link the VLT units, the team of international astronomers and engineers used an instrument called Pionier, which replaces a multitude of mirrors with a single optical microchip.
Jean-Philippe Berger, a French astronomer involved in the project said that although the first attempt to combine the four telescopes happened in March 2011, it did not really work.
He also said that this time it was already pretty clear that all the instruments were working correctly.
“Last time, the atmospheric conditions and vibrations in the system were so bad that the data was just worthless, we stopped after half an hour knowing that it wouldn’t improve,” he said.
“So this attempt is a real first one to carry out observations for several hours straight to test the system in different conditions,” Berger said.
From now on, the system will be offered to the astronomical community, he added, any astronomer working at Paranal or visiting it will be able to use it.
VLTI, or the VLT Interferometer, has been used since 2002 to link together up to three VLT telescopes, as well as four small auxiliary telescopes that reside beside the big ones on the same platform at Cerra Paranal mountain, at 2,635m altitude.