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New Telescope to Study the Birth of the Universe

3rd March 2009

New Telescope to Study the Birth of the Universe

Auckland astronomers are involved in a new high technology telescope which has just been installed on a Marlborough vineyard. It will be used to study the birth of the universe and to search for distant planets.

In an international collaboration between Spanish and New Zealand astronomers, one of the world’s fastest telescopes will attempt to detect the death of the first stars to have formed after the Big Bang. If successful, these will be by far the most distant objects ever studied by astronomers and provide important new clues to the conditions in the early Universe.

While the decision to site the telescope in a vineyard might appear unusual, the same high sunshine hours and low cloud cover that make Marlborough ideal for growing fine wine are the very same features valued by the astronomers.

The new telescope is robotic so once it is programmed for the night, it will be able to work unattended. It can also be operated directly via the Internet. Two other matching telescopes are already operating in Spain so the New Zealand one will be the first to cover the southern hemisphere skies. Its 60 centimetre mirror makes it the third largest research telescope in New Zealand but what distinguishes it is the speed it moves to each new target.

The primary targets will be extremely powerful explosions called “Gamma-ray Bursters” (GRBs), most of these being the death of a very massive star and the formation of a new black hole. These events are first detected by gamma-ray satellites which relay the position of the burst to earth-based telescopes within a few seconds. The new BOOTES-3 telescope will immediately react and start taking measurements of the burst brightness as the cataclysmic fireball fades.

As the powerful narrow gamma-ray beam rips through dust and gas surrounding the star, light is emitted that can be detected from the ground. The study of this secondary light – called the optical afterglow - will allow the distance to be measured and potentially tell the astronomers a great deal about the star that just died.

In addition to chasing GRBs, the telescope will also be used to detect planets around distant stars (called exoplanets). For this work the new telescope will follow-up events discovered by the 1.8 metre MOA Telescope at Mt John Observatory near Tekapo, the world’s largest telescope dedicated to this work. Of special interest will be planets with just the right temperature to allow liquid water to exist on their surface. It will even be possible to discover planets that are floating freely through space, having been ejected from their solar systems.

BOOTES-3 is a collaborative project led by the Institute for Astrophysics of Andalucía (IAA-CSIC) and the universities of Auckland, Massey and Canterbury and the Stardome Observatory. The new observatory housing the BOOTES-3 telescope is located at Vintage Lane Observatory near Blenheim (Marlborough, New Zealand).


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