Scientific Rationale

Ten years of VLTI: from first fringes to core science

Garching, October 24-27, 2011


Scientific Rationale

The Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI) saw the first fringes in 2001 with a very simple but powerful instrument called VINCI. Since then, the VLTI with AMBER and MIDI has become a major contributor to a number of important research domains in contemporary astrophysics, from the nature of rocky objects in the Solar System, to probing the nuclear regions of active galaxies, in addition to detailed investigations of stars and their close environments. The VLTI is the first optical interferometer to be implemented as a common user facility. At the VLTI, optical interferometry evolved from an initial experimental phase devoted mainly to demonstrate the technology, to the current phase where astronomers do not need to be "black-belt" interferometrists to use the instruments and extract valuable scientific information about their favourite targets.

The first theme of this conference is to travel, once again, the road of the VLTI in the last 10 years, celebrating its scientific achievements and the successful partnership between ESO and the international interferometric community. The first 10 years of VLTI have been both arduous and fascinating, with many challenging hurdles along the way. Turning the VLTI into a bona-fide common user facility required enormous efforts from scientists and engineers at ESO and in the community. The close collaboration between ESO and its user community was essential to make the VLTI a common user facility.

The second theme of the conference is to revisit the science that the VLTI will be doing in the era of ALMA and JWST. As is fitting for a facility of its capability and flexibility, the VLTI is evolving, and soon the first generation of instruments will be followed by a new much more powerful suite of instruments. PRIMA, GRAVITY and MATISSE will offer much improved sensitivity and imaging capabilities, characterizing planets, stars and black holes at unprecedented levels of detail. These instruments will arrive at a very special new era in observational astronomy: HST will be nearing the end of its mission, leaving an enormous legacy, while ALMA will have reached its full power and JWST will be getting ready to launch. Together, ALMA, JWST and the VLTI will allow to penetrate the innermost regions of stars and galaxies thus providing unprecedented details about the stellar physics and the nuclei of galaxies.

The third theme of the conference is to imagine the VLTI beyond the second generation of instruments, at the time when the ELTs will dominate ground based optical astronomy. Together with ALMA and JWST, the ELTs will herald a new era in astronomy. The ELTs have unprecedented sensitivity while interferometers will have reached also unprecedented spatial resolution. This conference will be an opportunity to preview the science that will be done by the ELTs and interferometers together, and the technical requirements for the VLTI to enable that science.