Ten Years of VLT Adaptive Optics

25 November 2011

25 November 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of NACO, the first adaptive optics system to be installed on the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT). NACO’s ultra-sharp vision has greatly contributed to the major discoveries made with the VLT.

NACO, short for NAOS-CONICA, was the first adaptive optics instrument to be installed on the VLT, in 2001 (eso0137). By compensating for turbulence in the Earth’s atmosphere, NACO greatly improved the telescope’s image sharpness and scientific potential. The instrument, developed by French and German consortia with the collaboration of ESO, was the first of a series of adaptive optics instruments that would be installed on the VLT Unit Telescopes.

Some of NACO’s first targets were planets and moons in the Solar System. These observations provided the first detailed maps of Titan’s weather and surface (eso0505) and infrared images of Io’s powerful volcanoes (eso0204).

NACO has also observed planets orbiting other stars. In 2004 it provided the first-ever direct image of an exoplanet (eso0428). By 2010 NACO had even been able to directly follow the motion of an exoplanet as it moved from one side of the star beta Pictoris to the other (eso1024). The instrument has also provided the first-ever spectrum of a directly observed exoplanet, allowing astronomers to study the planet’s atmosphere (eso1002).

NACO has also been used to peer into the centre of our galaxy, its infrared vision being able to see through the dense clouds of dust along the line of sight. It was used to make a series of very precise observations of the orbits of stars around the black hole since 2002 (see eso0226 and eso0846). These crucial observations proved conclusively that there was a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, This work has been rated as the first of ESO’s most significant scientific achievements to date (see ESO Top 10 science discoveries).

Adaptive optics technology has continued to evolve, and a new generation of instruments is under construction or being planned to ensure that even better facilities will be available on the VLT in future. Looking into the next decade yet more advanced adaptive optics systems are under development for ESO's European Extremely Large Telescope, the E-ELT.

More Information

The Nasmyth Adaptive Optics System (NAOS) was developed, with the support of the Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers/Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (INSU-CNRS), by a French consortium in collaboration with ESO. The French consortium consisted of the Office National d'Etudes et de Recherches Aérospatiales (ONERA), the Institut de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble (IPAG, formerly Laboratoire d'Astrophysique de Grenoble) and the Observatoire de Paris: Laboratoire d’études spatiales et d’instrumentation en astrophysique (LESIA, formerly called DESPA) and DASGAL (which no longer exists). The project manager was Gèrard Rousset (ONERA). François Lacombe (Observatoire de Paris) was responsible for the instrument and the project scientist was Anne-Marie Lagrange (Institut de Planétologie et d'Astrophysique de Grenoble, OSUG, Université Joseph Fourier/CNRS).

The CONICA Near-Infrared CAmera was developed by a German consortium, with extensive ESO collaboration. The consortium consists of the Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie (MPIA, Heidelberg) and the Max-Planck-Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE, Garching). The lead scientist is Rainer Lenzen (MPIA), with Reiner Hofmann (MPE) as co-investigator.

ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Czechia, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 40-metre-class European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.



Norbert Hubin
ESO, Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6517

Julien H. V. Girard
ESO, Santiago, Chile
Tel: +56 (02) 463 3097

Wolfgang Brandner
Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie
Heidelberg, Germany
Tel: +49 6221 528 289

Anne-Marie Lagrange
Grenoble, France
Tel: +33 4 7651 4203
Mobile: +33 6 89 17 40 98

Richard Hook
ESO, La Silla, Paranal, E-ELT & Survey Telescopes Press Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Mobile: +49 151 1537 3591

About the Announcement



A collage of images from NACO on the ESO Very Large Telescope
A collage of images from NACO on the ESO Very Large Telescope