Very Large Telescope

The Very Large Telescope is a beautiful facility in northern Chile. The ESO ran facility started operation in 1999. It consists of four optical telescopes that operate at infrared and visible wavelengths. The facility is extremely productive, with only the Hubble telescope producing more research papers during its operation. I just think it’s a dream place to work at. It looks like a rendering of a Mars colony.

This observatory is located on the Cerro Paranal mountain in the Atacama Desert. The four telescopes are named AntuKueyenMelipal, and Yepun, since these are words for astronomical objects in the Mapuche language.

The results from the observatory lead to more than one research paper per day on average. For example, 600 papers were published in 2017 based on results from this lab. One of its coolest discoveries is first ever direct imaging of an extrasolar planet: Beta Pictoris b. This planet is located 63 light-years away from Earth in the constellation of Pictor. Like many other exoplanets, it is a super-Jupiter. This means that is has a mass and radius greater than that of Jupiter. It’s also pretty hot at 1,451 °C. The direct imagining technique is very promising for the future search for exoplanets.

Another great discovery is tracking stars around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way. They have furthered used this data to test Einstein’s general relativity on the movement of a star near a black hole. This was the first experiment of its kind. They did it by measuring gravitational redshift. It’s an interesting consequence of the Doppler effect, when photons travelling out of a gravitational well lose energy. This loss of energy corresponds to an increase in wavelength, since E=hf. The greater the wavelength, the more redshifted the waves are.

A diagram representing gravitational redshift. Observe how the frequency of the light decreases as it gets further away from the potential well.

The ESO is building another telescope in Chile, which began construction in 2017. It is called the Extremely Large Telescope (a very original name). Some of its main goals are searching for more exoplanets. It will be able to look for more Earth size planets and study the atmospheres of large planets through direct imaging. It will also attempt to directly measure the rate of the acceleration of the universe’s expansion. This would be a major leap in understanding dark energy. Another crazy idea is figuring out if physical constants change with time. This would dramatically change physics as we know it, and also be a pain for physics students. I think investing in these observatories is very much worth it. What else can we desire as a civilisation other than knowledge about the space we inhabit?

An artist’s render of the ELT.


OpenStax. (n.d.). Physics. Lumen.

Wikimedia Foundation. (n.d.). Beta pictoris b. Wikipedia.

Wikimedia Foundation. (n.d.). Extremely large telescope. Wikipedia.

Wikimedia Foundation. (n.d.). Very large telescope. Wikipedia.

YouTube. (2017, September 22). Elementary introduction to gravitational redshift. YouTube.


Published by Mateusz Ratman

High school student from Warsaw, Poland. JHU Class of 2026.

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