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The Sciences

New Scope


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It shouldn't be surprising, perhaps, that the latest pan-European telescope has such a pedestrian name. After all, this is the continent that is naming its new currency the euro. But although the Very Large Telescope may be appellationally challenged, its light-gathering muscle is unsurpassed. Measuring some 27 feet across and weighing 23 tons, the VLT's primary mirror (seen below being moved into position at its mountaintop site in Chile) is the largest single-piece mirror in the world. In a series of test observations designed to show off its capabilities, the VLT produced images rivaling the Hubble Space Telescope in clarity-all the more impressive because the telescope is actually only one-quarter complete. In 2001, when the last of the set of four identical telescopes is finished, astronomers will be able to use them all in formation to create the equivalent of a 52-foot telescope, with a light-gathering ability almost three times greater than that of each of the two Keck telescopes in Hawaii and more than 50 times greater than the Hubble's.

This image of the Butterfly nebula, in the constellation Scorpius, shows the fine structure of the envelope of gas and dust flung off during the death throes of the ordinary star at the center. The dark band across the middle is probably a dense disk of dust that blots out some of the radiation from the star.

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