An Australian-led astronomy project has just received the green light to create the most powerful ground-based telescope in the world, giving us a wider, sharper and more sensitive view of the Universe.
But this telescope isn’t being built from scratch – instead, it will be an upgrade to the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, which is composed up of four massive eight-metre telescopes. One of these telescopes will be fitted with the new MAVIS instrument – a $57 million adaptive optics system that will see further and clearer than even the Hubble Space Telescope.
“MAVIS will be a powerful instrument that will serve a very large number of key science projects,” explains François Rigaut from the Australian National University, who is leading the MAVIS consortium. “This will include observations of our own Solar System as well as planets around other stars, and the physics of star formation, from the Milky Way to the first star clusters in the Universe.”
The MAVIS project has been in the works for a few years now (in fact, we reported on the initial announcement back in 2018), but today an agreement was officially signed between the MAVIS consortium and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the international astronomy organisation that operates the VLT.
Back in 2017, Australia entered into a 10-year partnership with ESO, giving astronomers and industry access to the world-class facilities at the La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, where the VLT is located.
According to Richard McDermid, MAVIS project scientist from Macquarie University, the project is a significant milestone for this burgeoning relationship – and for our nation’s astronomy research.
“MAVIS demonstrates that Australia can not only participate in the scientific life of the observatory, but can also be a core player in helping ESO maintain its leadership by developing unique and competitive instruments using Australian expertise,” he says.
MAVIS will be a cutting-edge addition to the VLT, helping it capture images that are three times sharper than Hubble.
But how’s that possible when Hubble is in orbit, free from the Earth’s troublesomely turbulent atmosphere?
It’s because MAVIS (which stands for the Multi-conjugate-adaptive-optics Assisted Visible Imager and Spectrograph) is an adaptive optics instrument that will correct for atmospheric blurring. It will combine with the VLT’s existing adaptive optics technology, including powerful laser guide stars and a deformable mirror that can change its shape hundreds of times a second to correct distortions. MAVIS will add two more adaptive mirrors to this suite.
Rigaut explains that “the ability to deliver corrected optical images, over a wide field of view using one of the world’s largest telescope, is what makes MAVIS a first-of-its kind instrument and means we will be able to observe very faint, distant objects”.
The MAVIS consortium is led by The Australian National University, with involvement from Macquarie University, Italy’s National Institute for Astrophysics and France’s Laboratoire d’Astrophysique.
In return for building the instrument, the consortium will receive guaranteed observing time and financial help from ESO.
MAVIS is expected to begin operations in 2027.
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Lauren Fuge is a science journalist at The Royal Institution of Australia.
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