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Successful "First Light" for VLT High-Resolution Spectrograph
Great Research Prospects with UVES at KUEYEN
05 Ottobre 1999
A major new astronomical instrument for the ESO Very Large Telescope at Paranal (Chile), the UVES high-resolution spectrograph, has just made its first observations of astronomical objects. The astronomers are delighted with the quality of the spectra obtained at this moment of "First Light". Although much fine-tuning still has to be done, this early success promises well for new and exciting science projects with this large European research facility.
Astronomical instruments at VLT KUEYEN
The second VLT 8.2-m Unit Telescope, KUEYEN ("The Moon" in the Mapuche language), is in the process of being tuned to perfection before it will be "handed" over to the astronomers on April 1, 2000.
The testing of the new giant telescope has been successfully completed. The latest pointing tests were very positive and, from real performance measurements covering the entire operating range of the telescope, the overall accuracy on the sky was found to be 0.85 arcsec (the RMS-value). This is an excellent result for any telescope and implies that KUEYEN (as is already the case for ANTU) will be able to acquire its future target objects securely and efficiently, thus saving precious observing time.
This work has paved the way for the installation of large astronomical instruments at its three focal positions, all prototype facilities that are capable of catching the light from even very faint and distant celestial objects.
The three instruments at KUEYEN are referred to by their acronyms UVES, FORS2 and FLAMES. They are all dedicated to the investigation of the spectroscopic properties of faint stars and galaxies in the Universe.
The UVES instrument
The first to be installed is the Ultraviolet Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) that was built by ESO, with the collaboration of the Trieste Observatory (Italy) for the control software. Complete tests of its optical and mechanical components, as well as of its CCD detectors and of the complex control system, were made in the laboratories of the ESO Headquarters in Garching (Germany) before it was fully dismounted and shipped (some parts by air, others by ship) to the ESO Paranal Observatory, 130 km south of Antofagasta (Chile). Here, the different pieces of UVES (with a total weight of 8 tons) were carefully reassembled on the Nasmyth platform of KUEYEN and made ready for real observations.
UVES is a complex two-channel spectrograph that has been built around two giant optical (echelle diffraction) gratings, each ruled on a 84 cm x 21 cm x 12 cm block of the ceramic material Zerodur (the same that is used for the VLT 8.2-m main mirrors) and weighing more than 60 kg. These echelle gratings finely disperse the light from celestial objects collected by the telescope into its constituent wavelengths (colours).
UVES' resolving power (an optical term that indicates the ratio between a given wavelength and the smallest wavelength difference between two spectral lines that are clearly separated by the spectrograph) may reach 110,000, a very high value for an astronomical instrument of such a large size. This means for instance that even comparatively small changes in radial velocity (a few km/sec only) can be accurately measured and also that it is possible to detect the faint spectral signatures of very rare elements in celestial objects.
One UVES channel is optimized for the ultraviolet and blue, the other for visual and red light. The spectra are digitally recorded by two highly efficient CCD detectors for subsequent analysis and astrophysical interpretation. By optimizing the transmission of the various optical components in its two channels, UVES has a very high efficiency all the way from the UV (wavelength about 300 nm) to the near-infrared (1000 nm or 1 µm). This guarantees that only a minimum of the precious light that is collected by KUEYEN is lost and that detailed spectra can be obtained of even quite faint objects, down to about magnitude 20 (corresponding to nearly one million times fainter than what can be perceived with the unaided eye). The possibility of doing simultaneous observations in the two channels (with a dichroic mirror) ensures a further gain in data gathering efficiency.
First Observations with UVES
In the evening of September 27, 1999, the ESO astronomers turned the KUEYEN telescope and - for the first time - focussed the light of stars and galaxies on the entrance aperture of the UVES instrument. This is the crucial moment of "First Light" for a new astronomical facility. The following test period will last about three weeks.
Much of the time during the first observing nights was spent by functional tests of the various observation modes and by targeting "standard stars" with well-known properties in order to measure the performance of the new instrument. They showed that it is behaving very well. This marks the beginning of a period of progressive fine-tuning that will ultimately bring UVES to peak performance.
The astronomers also did a few "scientific" observations during these nights, aimed at exploring the capabilities of their new spectrograph. They were eager to do so, also because UVES is the first spectrograph of this type installed at a telescope of large diameter in the southern hemisphere .
Many exciting research possibilities are now opening with UVES . They include a study of the chemical history of many galaxies in the Local Group, e.g. by observing the most metal-poor (oldest) stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and by obtaining the first, extremely detailed spectra of their brightest stars in the Magellanic Clouds. Quasars and distant compact galaxies will also be among the most favoured targets of the first UVES observers, not least because their spectra carry crucial information about the density, physical state and chemical composition of the early Universe.
UVES First Light: SN 1987A
One of the first spectral test exposures with UVES at KUEYEN was of SN 1987A , the famous supernova that exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) in February 1987, and the brightest supernova of the last 400 years.
UVES First Light: QSO HE2217-2818
The power of UVES is demonstrated by this two-hour test exposure of the southern quasar QSO HE2217-2818 with U-magnitude = 16.5 and a redshift of z = 2.4. It was discovered a few years ago during the Hamburg-ESO Quasar Survey , by means of photographic plates taken with the 1-m ESO Schmidt Telescope at La Silla, the other ESO astronomical site in Chile.