Revealed: The star factories hidden in the dustiest corners of the universe

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The Independent Online

British astronomers released the first images from deep space produced by a mountain-top telescope designed to see into the dustiest corners of the universe.

British astronomers released the first images from deep space produced by a mountain-top telescope designed to see into the dustiest corners of the universe.

The Gemini South telescope, built on the desolate summit of Cerro Pachon in the Chilean Andes 2,715 metres (8,900ft) above sea level, is designed to give the clearest views yet of stellar objects obscured by cosmic clouds.

It is the second of a pair of telescopes – Gemini North is on a mountain in Hawaii – designed to see through dust clouds by detecting infra-red light. They can generate detailed images of phenomena that would otherwise be invisible to the human eye.

With each telescope scanning on either side of the equator to provide a panoramic view of the northern and southern skies, astronomers will be given an unprecedented insight into some of the most obscure events in the universe.

At the heart of each Gemini telescope is a mirror eight metres wide mirror for collecting the faintest light signals from galaxies billions of light years away – a light-gathering power 10 times greater than that of the 2.4-metre mirror of the Hubble Space Telescope.

To overcome the optical interference caused by the Earth's atmosphere, the surface of Gemini's mirror is adjusted up to a hundred times a second. That counteracts the ripples in the light waves caused by air turbulence – the phenomenon that makes stars twinkle. This technique, known as adaptive optics, is designed to produce needle-sharp images at high resolutions comparable to those produced by the Hubble telescope.

Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, said: "From the southern hemisphere we can see right into the centre of our own galaxy to study the black hole there.

"Observing in the near infra-red is the only way to study the centre of our own galaxy because of the dust."

Among the images released yesterday were a close-up of the star-forming region of dust clouds and stellar objects in the region of Scorpius, and a high-resolution image of the spiral Seyfert galaxy, revealing its bright and active nucleus.

Patrick Roche, the UK Gemini Project Scientist at Oxford University, said the first images captured by the telescope were not disappointing.

"I have been fortunate to receive some of the early infra-red images of star field in Orion, which reach deeper than any other previous observations of the region and reveal many new and interesting structures in unprecedented detail," Dr Roche said.

The Government is contributing nearly a quarter of the cost of Gemini South, which gives British astronomers unhindered access rights to an eight-metre telescope for the first time.

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