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Friday, September 25, 1998 Published at 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK


Peering deep into space

The Hubble field - some of the most distant objects seen

An observatory destined to produce the clearest images of the universe has completed its first run of science observations. Our science editor Dr David Whitehouse reports:

Judging by the results so far, the Paranal observatory in the Andes will become one of the world's leading observatories in the 21st century.

Consisting of four huge telescopes, each with a main mirror 8.2 meters in size and numerous smaller telescopes, the view of the cosmos from Paranal will be clearer than from anywhere else on Earth.

The observatory received the official go ahead from the European Southern Observatory organisation in 1987 but astronomers had been designing it for years before that.

[ image: One of Paranal's four telescopes]
One of Paranal's four telescopes
Earlier this year it celebrated "first light" when astronomers made the first observations with one of the large telescopes. This was followed by the first science observations in August and September.

One of the most spectacular images taken was of the so-called Hubble Deep Field. This is a part of the sky observed by the Hubble Space Telescope as part of a project to peer more deeply into the universe than ever before.

What can be seen are some of the most distant objects, most of which have yet to be studied. It is hoped images like this will tell astronomers how the galaxies have evolved.

[ image: A galaxy seen edge-on]
A galaxy seen edge-on
Another observation was of an "edge-on" galaxy. This object is 400 million light-years away and other fainter and more distant galaxies can be seen around it.

These observations were made with just one of the four main telescopes in operation. The main mirror for telescope number two has only just arrived at Paranal.

Eventually all the telescopes will be linked together to form an '"optical interferometer". This will provide a view of the cosmos in unprecedented detail.

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