The Very Large Telescope array (VLT) is the flagship facility for European ground-based astronomy at the beginning of the third Millennium. It is the world’s most advanced optical instrument, consisting of four Unit Telescopes with main mirrors of 8.2m diameter and four movable 1.8m diameter Auxiliary Telescopes. The telescopes can work together, to form a giant ‘interferometer’, the ESO Very Large Telescope Interferometer, allowing astronomers to see details up to 25 times finer than with the individual telescopes. The light beams are combined in the VLTI using a complex system of mirrors in underground tunnels where the light paths must be kept equal to distances less than 1/1000 mm over a hundred metres. With this kind of precision the VLTI can reconstruct images with an angular resolution of milliarcseconds, equivalent to distinguishing the two headlights of a car at the distance of the Moon.
The 8.2m diameter Unit Telescopes can also be used individually. With one such telescope, images of celestial objects as faint as magnitude 30 can be obtained in a one-hour exposure. This corresponds to seeing objects that are four billion (four thousand million) times fainter than what can be seen with the unaided eye.
The large telescopes are named Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun. For more information about the meaning of these names, click here.
The VLT has made an undisputed impact on observational astronomy. It is the most productive individual ground-based facility, and results from the VLT have led to the publication of an average of more than one peer-reviewed scientific paper per day. VLT contributes greatly to making ESO the most productive ground-based observatory in the world. The VLT has stimulated a new age of discoveries, with several notable scientific firsts, including the first image of an extrasolar planet (eso0428), tracking individual stars moving around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way (eso0846), and observing the afterglow of the furthest known Gamma-Ray Burst.