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The world's biggest telescope gets some of the best instrumentation

24 March 2016

Two new instruments will be key to the success of the world’s largest visible and infrared telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

Artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) on Cerro Armazones (Credit: ESO)

Scientists and engineers from the UK astronomy research community are celebrating after contracts have been signed to commence mapping out the detailed specifications of the two new instruments.

The two new instruments, named MOSAIC (the Multi-Object Spectrograph) and HIRES (the High Resolution Spectrograph), will be workhorse instruments for the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s telescope and will both be reliant on substantial involvement from UK science and engineering teams.

Professor Colin Cunningham, from STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is leader of the UK E-ELT Project Office and said of the announcement "The start of these conceptual designs is an important step toward furnishing the E-ELT with the full range of capabilities required for headline science in the next decade. UK institutes are playing leading roles in both instruments, ensuring that UK scientists will have access to the first exciting results when they become operational."

The University of Cambridge is providing the UK science lead on HIRES and the STFC’s UK ATC in Edinburgh will lead the infrared subsystem (with contributions from The University of Cambridge and institutes from 5 other countries). Durham University is providing adaptive optics and fibre expertise. Heriot Watt University is developing laser comb technology that has the potential to make a major contribution to the critical calibration function.
Durham University is providing a co-project lead and adaptive optics expertise as well as technical lead on the instrument core structure for the MOSAIC instrument. The STFC’s UK ATC is providing the key roles of project scientist and lead systems engineer as well as leading the near infrared spectrograph and project management of the instrument core structure. Oxford University and STFC’s RAL Space are leading the positioning system and providing the instrument scientist.

Professor Roberto Maiolino, from the University of Cambridge, is the HIRES project scientist and said “HIRES will be an extraordinary machine, which will enable scientists to pursue a multitude of goals unachievable by current instrumentation, such as detecting signatures of life in other solar systems and revealing the fingerprints of the first generation of stars in the primordial Universe."

Dr Chris Evans based at STFC’s UKATC is the MOSAIC Project Scientist and said "After significant effort in assembling the case from the research community for a multi-object spectrograph on the E-ELT, I'm tremendously excited to start the advanced design of MOSAIC. Building on scientific discoveries expected from the James Webb Space Telescope in the coming years, MOSAIC will give us our first detailed insights into the properties of galaxies just emerging from the cosmic dawn after the Big Bang."

The E-ELT telescope, once it is operational in 2024, will enable astronomers to see more distant objects than previously possible, allowing them to understand younger structures in our night sky than ever before — helping improve our understanding of the Universe, the effects of dark matter and energy, and planets outside of our solar system.

Prof Simon Morris, Head of the Department of Physics at Durham University and UK co-project lead on MOSAIC, said “This latest step on the way to delivering the world’s largest optical telescope means we are on schedule to start delivering major breakthroughs in astronomy in the mid 2020s’. It has been 10 years since we first started thinking about this project, and so it is very exciting that we are able to start on the final design. Apart from providing answers to many current questions, the chance is very high for serendipitous, unexpected new insights by using these instruments.”

The MOSAIC instrument will allow astronomers to probe some of the deepest mysteries of the Universe: when did the first galaxies form and how did they aggregate into large structures like the Milky Way; how are ordinary matter and dark matter distributed throughout the Universe; and if there are planets around stars in galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Gavin Dalton, Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University believes that “The MOSAIC instrument, once operational, will enable researchers from around the globe to better understand some of the big questions in astronomy, including telling us more about the role of dark matter. By enabling simultaneous observations of large numbers of faint stars and galaxies, MOSAIC will allow us to explore in unprecedented detail the full range of environments of the earliest objects in the Universe.”

HIRES will be used for extremely detailed and accurate studies of individual objects and it will allow astronomers to: study the atmospheres of planets around other stars in a search for the signatures of life; probe the evolution of galaxies; identify the signature of the very first generation of stars in the primordial Universe; and determine whether some of the fundamental constants of physics, which regulate most physical processes in the Universe, actually change with time.

The two consortia are among the largest ever to collaborate in the production of astronomical instruments, illustrating the multinational efforts involved in making these spectrographs.

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