10 amazing VLT images

BBC Sky at Night Magazine picks ten of our favourite astrophotos captured by the Very Large Telescope in northern Chile.

This stunning panorama shows the Milky Way galaxy arching above the platform of ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal, Chile. At 2635 metres above sea level, Paranal Observatory is one of the very best astronomical observing sites in the world and is the flagship facility for European ground-based astronomy. The extent of our galaxy's cloudy and dusty structure can be seen in remarkable detail as a dim glowing band across the observation deck. From Earth, we see the Milky Way as a band across the sky because from our vantage point in one of its spiral arms we are seeing its disc-shaped structure edge-on as we peer towards its centre. Our galaxy is surrounded by several smaller satellite galaxies. Prominent here, to the left, are the Small Magellanic Cloud and Large Magellanic Cloud — dwarf galaxies which are members of our Local Group of galaxies. The VLT consists of four 8.2-metre Unit Telescopes (UTs) and four 1.8-metre Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs) which can be used together to form the ESO Very Large Telescope Interferometer (VLTI). Flickr user John Colosimo submitted this photograph to the Your ESO Pictures Flickr group. The Flickr group is regularly reviewed and the best photos are selected to be featured in our popular Picture of the Week series, or in our gallery. Link:  This photograph on John Colosimo’s Flickr photostream

The Milky Way stretches across the sky above ESO’s Paranal Observatory, location of of the Very Large Telescope. Credit: John Colosimo (colosimophotography.com)/ESO


The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope is a formidable instrument.

Its light-gathering power derives from its four telescopes, each with a main 8.2m diameter mirror, which combine to produce detailed images up to 25 times finer than each individual scope can achieve.

The VLT achieved first light in May 1998, from its location 2,635m high on the Cerro Paranal mountain in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.

Since then it has continued to give astronomers incredible, beautiful and scientifically intriguing views of the Universe.


Here we present ten of our favourite images captured by the VLT over the years.

02 - Carina
The Carina NebulaImage release date: 8 February 2012

The Carina Nebula lies 7,500 lightyears away from Earth in the Sagittarius-Carina arm of the Milky Way. A huge cloud of dust and gas, it is known as an active star forming region, where old stars die and are recycled through the process of stellar formation. The infrared HAWK-I camera captured this image while attached to the VLT, allowing astronomers to look beyond dust and gas that would obscure optical light observations.

03 - NGC 799
NGC 799 & NGC 800Image release date: 12 August 2013

The VLT gave astronomers two galaxies for the price of one with this spectacular image. Both these galaxies, NGC 799 (below) and NGC 800 (above), are about 300 million lightyears away in the constellation of Cetus. The fact that both lie face-on from Earth’s perspective provides an opportunity to compare the two. While NGC 799 is a barred spiral galaxy with a bar of bright stars stretch across its middle, NGC 800 is a smaller, regular spiral galaxy with a greater number of arms.

04 - NGC 5291
NGC 5291Image release date: 9 December 2015

Elliptical galaxy NGC 5291 – the bright oval blob above the centre of the image – is the result of a galactic crash that occurred 360 million years ago. Another galaxy smashed into its core, causing a ring of debris to form around it that can be seen in this image. This debris then collapsed over time to form star forming regions and dwarf galaxies, one of which, NGC 5291N, can be seen as a bright clump to the right of the image.

05 - Medusa
The Medusa NebulaImage release date: 20 May 2015

This colourful nebula is the result of a single star approaching death and beginning to shed its outer layers into space. These layers form a colourful gassy cloud when illuminated by hot young stars bursting with energy. As a result of the long filaments of glowing gas, the nebula has received the name ‘Medusa’, on account of its similarity to the deadly reptilian locks of the Gorgon from Greek mythology.

06 - Omega Nebula
The Omega NebulaImage release date: 1 November 2010

Hot young, blue stars and cooler, ageing red ones illuminate clouds of gas and dust to create the ghostly nebula Messier 17, also known as the Omega Nebula. This image is a closeup of the central region, spanning 15 lightyears across. The nebula is located 6,000 lightyears from Earth in the constellation of Sagittarius.

07 - NGC 986
NGC 986Image release date: 1 February 2016

It would be a struggle to find a more perfect example of a barred spiral galaxy than NGC 986 in the constellation of Fornax. The galaxy is face-on from Earth’s perspective, has just two distinct, sweeping arms and a huge bar of stars stretching across its centre. Also visible in the bar are wisps of dark dust, feeding the birth of new stars within the galaxy.

08 - NGC 134
NGC 134Image release date: 9 November 2007

When we look at galaxies face-on, we can easily see their bright central core, but this is not so the case with side-on galaxies such as NGC 134. The dark swirls of dust visible in this image are actually thick enough to block out optical light on its way to Earth’s telescopes. This galaxy is peppered with spots of red in its spiral arms, creating a beautiful image. These areas are actually hot regions where new stars are forming. NGC 134 is about 60 million lightyears away and spans 150,000 lightyears, making it larger than our own Milky Way.

09 - VFTS 682
VFTS 682 in the Large Magellanic CloudImage release date: 25 May 2011

At the dead centre of this image of an area surrounding the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud is star VFTS 682. To the right and below it is a bright, white cluster of stars known as R 136. VFTS 682 is a star existing in relatively isolated space, and astronomers are unsure as to whether it formed on its own, or was originally part of the nearby star cluster. The Large Magellanic Cloud is a neighbouring galaxy of the Milky Way, both of which lie in a galactic collective known as the Local Group.

10 - NGC 1313
NGC 1313Image release date: 23 November 2006

This odd, chaotic-looking galaxy shows the cosmos is by no means the ordered place it might appear in images of perfect spiral galaxies. It is a very active galaxy, with numerous star-forming regions and expanded clouds of gas caused by the energy of star formation pushing them out into space.