Thousands of new eyes for telescope thanks to Australian technology

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A schematic of the 4-metre VISTA telescope showing the location of the AAO’s AESOP Fibre Positioner

The telescope is called VISTA, and it lives in Chile. The new ‘eyes’ are optical fibres that the Australian Astronomical Observatory (AAO) just received the official go ahead to build, that will vastly increase the number of stars or galaxies the telescope can ‘see’ at once.

The AAO will start construction of more than 2400 high-precision, rapid positioning optical fibres, which represent critical technology for the project that cannot be sourced from anywhere else in the world. The adoption of Australian positioning technology is extremely exciting for Australian astronomy because it recognises our high degree of innovation and international engagement.

The VISTA telescope is located at the Paranal Observatory high in the Atacama desert of Chile, and is operated by the European Southern Observatory, one of the world’s pre-eminent astronomy research bodies.

VISTA is undergoing a $55 million (€40M) upgrade with a new instrument, called 4MOST, which will allow it to examine 75 million stars or galaxies. This will significantly advance our understanding of dark matter and galaxy formation, particularly the events that formed the Milky Way galaxy in which we live.

To analyse so many stars and galaxies with existing telescope technology would take many decades. The new technology that the AAO is working on will cut this time down to only a few years. The Australian European Southern Observatory Positioner, or AESOP, has 2436 optical fibre ‘eyes’ that are movable with great precision. AESOP is a key element of the new 4MOST instrument being developed for VISTA.

Every new instrument must pass a series of design reviews before construction can begin, and AESOP, an $8 million (€6M) instrument in its own right, has just passed its “Long Lead Items Final Design Review” with flying colours. The AESOP team had the 2436 optical fibre spine assemblies included in the assessment, and the panel described the outcome as: "A very successful review for the AESOP team!”

The AAO’s AESOP system will position 2436 fibres in two minutes, which is 120 times faster than the existing robot positioning technology at the Anglo-Australian Telescope. Importantly, AESOP works in parallel, so its rapid positioning time is independent of the number of fibres.

AESOP is based on patented AAO technology, known as Echidna for its spiny appearance, that was installed on Japan’s 8-metre Subaru telescope in Hawaii. It is also destined to be used on future telescopes like the Maunakea Spectroscopic Explorer scheduled to begin operation in Hawaii in the mid-2020s.

The AAO’s work with ESO and the 4MOST collaboration will also directly benefit Australian astronomers. AAO has nominated eight Australian astronomers and their teams to participate in any of the surveys using the 4MOST instrument, once it is operational. In addition, Australia is entitled to lead one 4MOST Consortium Survey, called WAVES (led by Prof. Simon Driver of the University of Western Australia), to study 2 million galaxies to better understand dark matter and galaxy formation.

Australia is the only one of the 13 international partners in the 4MOST consortium that is not a European Southern Observatory member, a consequence of our world-leading technology development.

 

Contacts

Science contact: Andrew Sheinis, Head of Instrumentation, AAO

Ph: +61 293 724 821 E: Andrew.Sheinis@aao.gov.au

Media Contact: Andrew Hopkins, Head of Research and Outreach, AAO

Ph: +61 293 724 849 E: Andrew.Hopkins@aao.gov.au

Multimedia:

Seven of the 2400 AESOP "spines" in an AAO laboratory test-rig. Credit: Jurek Brzeki/AAO.

 
Test showing the parallel movement of 6 optical fibre spines within a 64-spine prototype of the AESOP system. AESOP is a planned 2400 spine precision optical fibre positioner for the 4MOST instrument on the VISTA telescope. Credit: Jurek Brzeki/AAO.