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The BBC's James Wilkinson reports
VLT will become fully operational in 2003
 real 56k

Wednesday, 27 May, 1998, 14:46 GMT 15:46 UK
A very good look at space

An energetic jet penetrates the centre of the ellipitical galaxy Messier 87
The world's largest telescope has taken its first pictures of space and is on track towards becoming fully operational.

The European Southern Observatory (Eso) released the images taken with the Very Large Telescope, which was built in northern Chile by eight European nations.

"Everything went according to plan," said Rodrigo de Castro, of the Eso, after what was dubbed the "First Light" Event.

messier 4
Global cluster Messier 4: About 6,000 light years away
The ESO comprises scientists from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland.

"It was a moonless night, but with a clear atmosphere and good visibility," Mr de Castro said.

The VLT, which sits in the Cerro Paranal, some 1,000km (600 miles) north of Santiago, will become fully operational in 2003.

When its four mirrors are activated, they will create a massive lens 16m (53ft) in diameter.

The project's leader is Italian professor Massimo Tarengui. He led the team of astronomers who worked more than six hours to get the first shots of space, using the VLT's first mirror.

Butterfly Nebula
Butterfly Nebula: Picture combines blue, yellow and red images
"A first analysis of these images convincingly demonstrates the exceptional potential of the Eso Very Large Telescope," the observatory said.

"Just one month after the installation and provisional adjustment of the optics, the performance of this giant telescope meets or surpasses the design goals, in particular as concerns the achievable image quality.

"Exposures lasting up to 10 minutes confirm that the tracking, crucial for diurnal rotation of the sky, is very accurate and stable."

Greek astronomer Jason Spyromilio and Australian engineer Peter Gray also took part in the operation.

The scientists aimed the VLT - which cost $500m - at objects a short distance from Earth and will soon undertake further tests of the telescope's power.

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