eso9534 — Organisation Release

ESO Council Visits First VLT Unit Telescope Structure in Milan

5 December 1995

As the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) rapidly takes on shape, Europe has just come one step closer to the realisation of its 556 million DEM astronomical showcase project.

Last week, the ESO Council held its semi-annual meeting in Milan (Italy) [1]. During a break in the long agenda list, Council members had the opportunity to visit the Ansaldo factory in the outskirts of this city and to see for the first time the assembled mechanical structure of one of the four 8.2-metre VLT Unit telescopes. This Press Release is accompanied by a photo that shows the ESO Council delegates in front of the giant telescope.

After a long climb up the steep staircase to the large Nasmyth platform at the side of the telescope where the astronomical instruments will later be placed, Dr. Peter Creola (Switzerland), President of the ESO Council and a mechanics expert, grabbed the handrail and surveyed the structure with a professional eye: `I knew it was going to be big, but not that enormous!', he said.

Other delegates experienced similar feelings, especially when they watched the 430 tonnes of steel in the 24-metre tall and squat structure turn smoothly and silently around the vertical axis. The Chairman of the ESO Scientific Technical Committee (STC), Dr. Johannes Andersen (Denmark), summarized his first, close encounter with the VLT by `This is great fun!' and several of his colleague astronomers were soon seen in various corners of the vast structure, engaged in elated discussions about the first scientific investigations to be done with the VLT in two years' time.

The VLT Main Structures

The visit by Council took place at the invitation of Ansaldo Energia S.p.A. (Genova), EIE-European Industrial Engineering S.r.I. (Venice) and SOIMI-Societa Impianti Industriale S.p.A. (Milan), the three Italian enterprises responsible for the construction of the main structures of the VLT 8.2-metre Unit telescopes.

Short speeches were given on this occasion by Drs. Ferruccio Bressani (Ansaldo), Luigi Guiffrida (SOIMI), Gianpietro Marchiori (EIE) and Prof. Massimo Tarenghi (ESO), describing the very successful implementation of this major VLT contract that was awarded by ESO in September 1991 [2]. All speakers praised the good collaboration between ESO and its industrial partners and Prof. Riccardo Giacconi, Director General of ESO, expressed his satisfaction `with the splendid performance of the ESO-Industry team which was bringing us close to the realisation of the premier telescope array in optical ground-based astronomy in the world'.

The participants were also pleased to listen to several of the Italian engineers present who commented on the very positive experience of being personally involved in the world's largest telescope project.

The VLT telescope structures incorporate many new technological concepts. Thanks to these and careful planning of the many components and their integration, it has been possible to achieve, among others, light weight construction, high mechanical stiffness, good thermal equilibrium with the ambient air (of importance for the seeing during the observations), low electromagnetic emissitivity (i.e. low interference with the sensitive astronomical instruments) and easy maintainability.

Of particular interest is also the giant, direct drive system with a diameter of 9 metres and the sophisticated, innovative laser encoder system. In this way, there is no direct contact between the moving parts and the friction during the rotation is kept at an absolute minimum.

The Next Steps

The ESO VLT project is now entering into a decisive phase and the next years will see an increasing number of telescope parts and instruments from the scientific and industrial laboratories of Europe converging towards the VLT observatory at Cerro Paranal in Chile. It is gratifying that, despite its high degree of complexity and incorporation of a substantial number of new technologies, the project is within schedule and budget.

There will be several important milestones in 1996.

During the next two months, the mounting of the mechanical structure in Milan will be completed. Following this, a group of ESO hard- and software experts will spend about 6 months next to it, implementing and thoroughly testing all aspects of the very advanced VLT telescope control system.

In the meantime, the erection of the first telescope enclosure at Paranal is rapidly proceeding and the outside panelling will soon be put in place. This work will be completed in January 1996, after which the integration of all inside mechanical components will follow. The take-over by ESO of the fully operational, first enclosure is scheduled for May 1996. The other enclosures will become ready at regular intervals thereafter.

In Milan, all of the heavy parts of the second telescope structure have already been produced and the third and fourth are about 60 percent complete. While the first structure has now been pre-assembled for tests, the individual parts of the second will not be put together before they are shipped to Paranal in early 1996. Starting in June 1996, they will then be assembled inside the completed, first enclosure. Thus, the `second' structure will become the `first' VLT Unit telescope (UT1). This work will last until early 1997, after which the first 8.2-metre mirror will arrive from Europe and be installed. Finally, after another test and optimisation period, `first light' for UT1 is expected in late 1997.

This procedure is very advantageous, because it allows to continue under less time pressure the extensive tests on the `first' structure in Milan until a satisfactory state of debugging and optimisation of the new VLT control system has been reached. In this way, the time necessary for the installation of this system in UT1 at Paranal in 1997 will be significantly shortened.

In fact, the structure seen by the ESO Council in Milan will be the last to be shipped to Paranal where it will then become the fourth 8.2-metre Unit telescope (UT4).

Mirrors and Instruments

As earlier announced, ESO officially received the first 8.2-metre VLT mirror from REOSC in Paris [3] on November 21. The polishing of the second mirror has already started and, based on the experience gained with the first, it is expected that this work will be accomplished in less time.

The third blank is already at REOSC and the fourth will soon be ready at Schott Glaswerke in Mainz (Germany).

Following extended studies, and as yet another move towards new technology within the VLT project, it has now been decided to make the 1.2-metre secondary VLT mirrors of beryllium, a very light, exotic metal. The contracting firm is Dornier of the DASA group (Germany). This saves much weight and allows these relatively large mirrors to be efficiently used in the `chopping and tilting' mode needed for observations in the infrared wavelength region as well as for the critical, image-sharpening adaptive optics system.

Significant progress has also been achieved on the first astronomical instruments which will be installed at the VLT. The integration of the first two of these, ISAAC and CONICA which will be installed on UT1 in the course of 1997, has already started in the ESO laboratories at the Headquarters in Garching. Important advances have also taken place within the FORS (managed by a consortium of Landessternwarte Heidelberg, Universitaets-Sternwarte Goettingen and Institut fuer Astronomie und Astrophysik der Ludwig Maximilians Universitaet Muenchen) and FUEGOS (Paris Observatory, Meudon Observatory, Toulouse Observatory, Geneva Observatory and Bologna Observatory) projects. More details about these and other VLT instruments will be given in later communications.


[1] The Council of ESO consists of two representatives from each of the eight member states. It is the highest legislative authority of the organisation and normally meets twice a year. This time, Council was invited to Milan by the Director of the Osservatorio di Brera (Milan), Prof. Guido Chincarini, and the Italian delegation.

[2] See eso9108 of 24 September 1991.

[3] See eso9515 of 13 November 1995.

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About the Release

Release No.:eso9534
Legacy ID:PR 18/95
Name:Paranal, Very Large Telescope
Type:Unspecified : Technology : Observatory : Telescope
Facility:Very Large Telescope


ESO Council visits VLT construction
ESO Council visits VLT construction