ESO telescope designer Raymond Wilson wins prestigious Kavli Award for astrophysics

June 04, 2010

The biennial prize, presented by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, was instituted in 2008 and is given to researchers who significantly advance knowledge in the fields of nanoscience, neuroscience, and astrophysics, acting as a complement to the Nobel Prize. The award is named for and funded by Fred Kavli, the Norwegian entrepreneur and phi­lanthropist who later founded the Kavlico Corpora­tion in the US -- today one of the world's largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive and industrial applications.

Wilson, who joined ESO in 1972, strived to achieve optical perfection, developing the concept of active optics as a way to enhance the size of telescopic primary mirrors. It is the size of these mirrors that determines the ability of a telescope to gather light and study faint and distant objects. Before active optics, mirrors over six metres in diameter were impossible, being too heavy, costly, and likely to bend from gravity and temperature changes. The use of active optics, which preserves optimal image quality by continually adjusting the mirror's shape during observations, made lighter, thinner so-called "meniscus mirrors" possible.

Wilson first led the implementation of active optics in the revolutionary New Technology Telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory, and continued to develop and improve the technology until his retirement in 1993. Since then, active optics have become a standard part of modern astronomy, applied in every big telescope including ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), a telescope array with four individual telescopes with 17.5 cm thick 8.2-metre mirrors. Active optics has contributed towards making the VLT the world's most successful ground-based observatory and will be an integral part of ESO's European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) project. Active optics technology is also part of the twin 10-metre Keck telescopes, the Subaru telescope's 8.2-metre mirror and the two 8.1-metre Gemini telescopes.

Co-prize winners Jerry Nelson and Roger Angel respectively pioneered the use of segmentation in telescope primary mirrors -- as used on the Keck telescopes, and the development of lightweight mirrors with short focal ratios.
A webcast from Oslo, Norway, announcing the prize winners is available at and

More information

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 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, 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 VISTA, the world's largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".


The official citation:
About the Kavli Prize:
Active optics:


Jason Spyromilio
ESO, Head of the E-ELT Telescope Project Office
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6411

Lars Lindberg Christensen
ESO, Head of ESO education and Public Outreach Department
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6761
Cell: +49 173 387 2621


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