HomeScienceOuter SpaceA new instrument gives the Very Large Telescope an even sharper view...

A new instrument gives the Very Large Telescope an even sharper view of the cosmos

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal in northern Chile is undoubtedly one of the most important ground-based observatories. But a new infrared instrument recently installed on the telescope has made the VLT even better.

The Enhanced Resolution Imager and Spectrograph (ERIS) was delivered to Chile in December 2021 and the first test observations were made from February this year. ESO, the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, an international organization that coordinates the use of the VLT and several other observatories, says this infrared instrument “will be able to see further and in greater detail and lead the way in solar system observations of exoplanets and galaxies.”

The first official image released by ERIS confirms this claim. This image above shows the galaxy NGC 1097, comparing the image from ERIS, at right, with an image of the same galaxy taken by the previous instrument, NACO, which consists of the Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System (NAOS) and the Near-Infrared Imager and Spectrograph (CONICA), left.

As you can see, the new instrument shows the galaxy in incredible detail. NGC 1097 is located 45 million light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Fornax. The ERIS image shows a clearer view of the gas and dust ring at the center of the galaxy, with a sharper view of the bright spots in the surrounding ring, which are stellar nurseries.

First light for ERIS, the newest infrared instrument of the Very Large Telescope. This image was taken through four different filters by ERIS’ state-of-the-art infrared camera, the Near Infrared Camera System — or NIX. The filters are represented here by blue, green, red and magenta, the latter highlighting the compact areas in the ring. To put NIX’s resolution into perspective, this image shows in detail a portion of the sky that is less than 0.03% the size of the full moon. Credit:ESO/ERIS team

The ERIS instrument combines a state-of-the-art infrared imager, the Near Infrared Camera System – or NIX imager (NIX) and an integral field spectrograph (SPIFFIER – SPectrometer for Infrared Faint Field Imaging), both of which use a laser-assisted adaptive optics system to improve display performance. The adaptive optics corrects in real time for the blurring effects of the Earth’s atmosphere. ESO says that ERIS will be active for at least ten years and is expected to make important contributions to a wide range of topics in astronomy, ranging from distant galaxies and black holes to exoplanets and dwarf planets in our own solar system.

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“We not only expect ERIS to achieve its main scientific objectives,” says Harald Kuntschner, ESO’s project scientist for ERIS, in a press release, “but that because of its versatility it will also be used for a wide variety of other scientific cases, hopefully leading to new and unexpected results.”

ERIS is mounted on Unit Telescope 4 of the VLT, and officials say the upgrade brings some vital improvements to the facility for the next decade.

“ERIS breathes new life into the fundamental adaptive optical imaging and spectroscopy capabilities of the VLT,” said Ric Davies, Principal Investigator of the ERIS Consortium and a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. “Thanks to the efforts of everyone involved in the project over the years, many scientific projects can now benefit from the outstanding resolution and sensitivity that the instrument can achieve.”

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