Astronomers working with a major new instrument at the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT) at the Paranal Observatory have had a first taste of what is bound to become a research bonanza. Recent test observations with the Ultraviolet-Visual Echelle Spectrograph (UVES) have demonstrated the exceptional science potential of this powerful facility.

The first long-exposure test spectra of stars, galaxies and quasars obtained with UVES have thrilled the astronomers by their extraordinary quality. Some have already yielded important results, from unprecedentedly accurate chemical analysis of individual stars in nearby galaxies to abundance measurements of light elements created during the Big Bang. Others provide new insights into the composition of the gas in a galaxy in the early Universe, less than 3 billion years after the Big Bang [1]. One particular set of observations measured an upper limit of the uranium content in a very old star – and thereby a lower limit to the age of the universe.

The instrument operated smoothly during the entire three weeks of the first commissioning. Altogether, only 7 hours were lost due to technical problems of either the instrument or the telescope, a small figure at this stage of operation of a new instrument at a new telescope. A large number of scientific observations were obtained with the aim of testing the limiting capability of UVES for various types of research programmes.

At the same time, the data reduction pipeline was successfully tested; it contributes effectively to the extensive data processing needed to prepare the complex spectra for accurate astrophysical evaluation. Since February 2000, many of these observational data, with a total of more than 90 hours of pure integration time, have been included in the Public Data section of the ESO Science Archive facility.

The analysis of the first scientific data has been carried out by a team of ESO astronomers and by members of the UVES Instrument Science Team who have made available the results to illustrate the impressive capabilities of this powerful instrument as reported below. They cover a wide range of current front-line research areas and they provide an most promising preview of the many observational possibilities with this new instrument.

Full information with images, links and 8 detailed reports, is available at the indicated website.