Starring role: the view from the Very Large Telescope
The VLT sits atop a mountain in the desert in northern Chile, home to some of the darkest skies on Earth – the perfect place to observe our universe and its galaxies billions of light years away
I get a tour of the telescopes and then, at sunset, stand inside to watch the roof open and the mirror turn towards the sky, escorted by my guide, Farid Char. In Paranal you get an average of 320 clear nights per year, with an average of 5-10 per cent humidity. Near-perfect conditions.
But what about earthquakes, I ask. “Even though it sits on a fault, the VLT can withstand an earthquake of big proportions,” he says. Research suggests it can withstand up to seven on the Richter scale without damage, and more than eight with only minor cosmetic damage.
The opening process takes about 30 minutes, in which time the sky turns from deep tangerine to lilac. Eventually it becomes black, and then the stars and the astronomers come out for the night.
“The VLT collects more light than the Hubble, which has a 2.5m diameter compared to our 8.2m,” says Zahed Wahhaj, an astronomer working at the VLT.
Munich-based astronomer David Wilman is researching galaxy formations. “We are observing a new star. It’s over 10 billion light years from Earth.” So it’s an old star then? “Well you are looking 10 billion years back into the past. At that time it was only three billion years since the big bang. So it would be old. Very old.”