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13 October 2009

The Anglo-Australian Telescope to 2009


Scientific highlights

Technological advances

1974 27 April, first light, first images of stars recorded on photographic plates at the prime focus. 16 October, AAT inaugurated.  
1975   The Image Dissector Scanner (IDS), the first digital electronic imaging detector designed for astronomy, allows astronomers to collect much more and better data than ever before.
1976   The versatile RGO spectrograph is used at the Cassegrain focus. It remains one of the most commonly used instruments on the AAT. The Image Photon Counting System mounted on the RGO (IPCS) is commissioned and becomes detector of choice. This system becomes the most powerful in the world for high-resolution spectroscopy.
1977 Optical flashes from a radio pulsar in the constellation of Vela are observed. This was only the second optical pulsar to be observed and the faintest star ever studied at the time.  
1978 Discovery that many X-ray sources coincide with Seyfert galaxies.  
1979 Studies of galaxy NGC 5291 show it to be an unusual gas-rich galaxy. Gas is being stripped from this galaxy and, as a by-product, a host of tiny companion galaxies is being formed.  
1980   A novel infrared instrument, IRPS comes into full operation giving the AAT new power. Detailed IR observations of the Orion nebula are also made, revealing for the first time the violent early stages of star formation.
1981   Charge-coupled devices (CCDs) revolutionise light detection at the AAT. Optical fibres for astronomy are pioneered at the AAO with the use of 25 fibres in a small field. Over time, more fibres are added to this instrument (called FOCAP). By 1991 it has recorded more spectra than any other comparable system in the world.
1982 AAT observations of a quasar (PKS 2000-330) reveal a redshift of 3.78, which makes it the most distant known object in the Universe at the time.  
1983 Infrared observations of the centre of our Galaxy show that the central object consists of several separate components, including congregations of young hot stars, a very tight cluster of cooler stars, and a central concentration of cooler stars probably circling a black hole.  
1984 Discovery of clouds on the dark side of Venus. At certain wavelengths, clouds are backlit by the heat from the planet's surface. A larger optical fibre mounting system covers the full field of the AAT, greatly increasing the scope for multi-object work.
1985   The Low Dispersion Survey Spectrograph (LDSS) is first used. This revolutionary instrument allows multi-slit low-dispersion spectroscopy of very faint objects.
1986 Organic molecules are detected in the dusty material streaming out of comet Halley. Discovery of the first quasar with a redshift greater than four, the then most distant known object in the Universe.  
1987 Supernova 1987A, the brightest exploding star since telescopes were invented, blazes forth from a nearby galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. The supernova is visible only from the Southern Hemisphere and the AAT has a prime role in observing it. There is an urgent need for a very high resolution spectrograph to analyse the light from the supernova. AAO engineer Peter Gillingham designs and builds a spectrograph in under two months—a record time.
1988   The University College London Coudé Spectrograph (UCLES) is commissioned. It has the double advantage of very high resolution and broad wavelength coverage.
1989 Autofib, an automatic optical fibre positioner, is used to show that the globular clusters around the elliptical galaxy Centaurus A are very similar to those in our own galaxy, despite the large differences in morphological type and luminosity between the two galaxies.  
1990   Work begins on the 2dF (Two Degree Field) system. This uses a robotic positioner to place the ends of optical fibres onto the telescope’s focal plane, where each fibre can catch the light of one galaxy. Up to 400 fibres can be used, allowing the light from up to 400 galaxies to be captured simultaneously. It is a world-leading instrument.
1991 IRIS observations of a cluster of extremely hot, massive stars located near the Galactic Centre suggest that a burst of star formation may have occurred a few million years ago. IRIS (the Infrared Imager Spectrograph) becomes the AAO's first instrument to give two-dimensional imaging at IR wavelengths. It is the most complex instrument that the AAO has built to that time.
1992   A new, large format Tektronix CCD is commissioned. This detector has twice the sensitivity of the best CCD previously available.
1993 IRIS observations of the northern outflow of Orion reveal unexpected jets. The jets are a result of an explosion about 1000 years ago and travel at up to 400 km a second. The IRIS instrument wins the JJC Bradfield Award for engineering excellence from the Institution of Engineers Australia (Sydney Division).

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collides with Jupiter. IRIS observations reveal details of the collisions and later changes at the impact sites.

Astronomers using the AAT discover the Sagittarius dwarf elliptical galaxy—at the time, the nearest known neighbour to our Milky Way Galaxy.

1995   The Two-degree Field (2dF) facility for the AAT is officially opened.
1996   The Taurus tunable filter uses a unique system to enable astronomers to tune into very narrow parts of the spectrum. This is particularly helpful for observing objects that emit their light at a specific wavelength rather than across a broad range.

Observations at the AAT detect the first isolated brown dwarf in our galaxy. Brown dwarfs are star-like objects which are not massive enough to burn nuclear fuel and so are extremely faint and difficult to detect.

Observations begin for the 2dF (Two Degree Field) Galaxy Redshift Survey, or 2dFGRS, and for a similar survey of quasars, 2QZ.


Australian telescopes including the AAT help make the link between an exploding star, SN1998bw, and a powerful burst of gamma-rays from the same region of space. This is the first good evidence that “gamma-ray bursters” are in fact exploding stars.

The Anglo-Australian planet search starts. It monitors 24 bright, nearby Sun-like stars, and looks for tiny wobbling motions in the star that reveal the presence of a planet. By 2009 the search has found 25 planets.

The AAO is recognised as world leader in optical fibres for astronomy when the European Southern Observatory contracts it to build a fibre positioner for the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
1999 The 2dF system is in regular use. By 1999 it has measured more galaxy and quasar redshifts (40 000 and growing) than any other instrument in the world.  
2000 Astronomers finish three years of observations to map the magnetic fields on the surfaces of stars other than the Sun—the first time such images have been made.  
2001 Analysis of early results from the 2dF Galaxy Redshift Survey shows that “dark matter” is distributed in the Universe in the same way as normal matter, and that there is not enough of it to stop the Universe expanding forever.  
2002 Observations are completed for the 2dF Galaxy Redshift survey. The survey measures the redshifts of 220,000 galaxy—effectively, their distances—and from it is produced the biggest 3D map to that time of galaxies in space, out to three billion light-years from Earth. From subtle patterns in the map astronomers make the most precise estimates to date of the proportions of normal matter, “dark matter” and “dark energy” in the Universe. IRIS2 is a combined infrared imager and spectrograph built by the AAO for the AAT. In 2002 it takes out the JJC Bradfield Award for engineering excellence from the Institution of Engineers Australia (Sydney Division)—just as its predecessor, IRIS, did in 1993.
2003 The Anglo-Australian Planet Search finds a planet about twice the mass of Jupiter orbiting a Sun-like star. Of the hundred-odd planetary systems that are known at the time, this is the one most similar to our Solar System.  
2004 Astronomers using the AAT discover more than 40 previously unknown miniature galaxies, now called “ultra-compact dwarfs”.  
2005 The AAT and a large telescope in Chile are used together to “listen” to a star that rings like a bell. Churning gas in the star Alpha Centauri B create low frequency sound waves that make the star pulse in and out. These are the most precise and detailed measurements of such a star vibrating.  
2006 Astronomers start WiggleZ—a huge survey of 400,000 galaxies that will help determine the nature of the mysterious “dark energy”. The AAO installs a powerful new spectrograph, AAOmega, on the AAT. It is the world’s best instrument for wide-field spectroscopic surveys.
2007 Astronomers used the AAT with a visitor instrument, SEMELPOL, to study magnetic fields on the surfaces of young stars, which are much stronger than those on the Sun. Magnetic fields affect, for instance, how active a star is and how fast its spin slows down.  
2008 Astronomers begin the GAMA (Galaxy and Mass Assembly) project, to help build a better picture of how galaxies form. The first trials take place on the AAT of sophisticated optical fibres for astronomy. In effect, these fibres make the sky look darker and clearer at infrared wavelengths, allowing astronomers to detect fainter objects in space.
2009 Astronomers make a detailed picture of the "cloud patterns" in the thin gas in the space between the stars (the interstellar medium). To do this, they use the AAOmega spectrograph to study the pattern of wavelengths absorbed from light shining through the gas from a background source (a "globular cluster" of stars).  


Researcher contacts

Associate Professor Andrew Hopkins
Head of AAT Science, Anglo-Australian Observatory, Sydney, Australia
Office tel: +61 2 9372 4849

Professor Fred Watson
Astronomer in Charge, Anglo-Australian Telescope, Siding Spring Observatory, NSW Australia
Contact via Helen Sim
Mob: 0419 635 905
Office tel: 02 9372 4251
Email: hsim@aao.gov.au