The world's largest floating mirror telescope comes online

The world’s largest floating mirror telescope comes online

Ask any astronomer, astrophysicist or cosmologist, and they will probably tell you that a new age of astronomy is upon us! Between breakthroughs in gravitational wave astronomy, the explosion of exoplanet studies, and the next generation of ground-based and space-based telescopes coming online, it’s pretty obvious that we’re on the verge of an era of almost continuous discovery! As always, great discoveries, innovations and the things they enable inspire researchers and researchers to look ahead and take the next big step.

Take, for example, research on liquid mirrors and advanced interferometers, which would rely on entirely new types of telescopes and light collection to advance the science of astronomy. A groundbreaking example is the newly ordered one International Liquid Mirror Telescope (ILMT) telescope that just came online at Devasthal Peak, a 2,450 m (8,040 ft) high mountain located in the central Himalayas. Unlike conventional telescopes, ILMT relies on a rapidly rotating 4-meter (13-foot) mirror coated with a layer of mercury to capture cosmic light.

Like other observatories, the ILMT is high above sea level to minimize distortion caused by atmospheric water vapor (a phenomenon known as atmospheric refraction). Much like ESO’s Paranal observatory in northern Chile or the Mauna Kea observatories in Hawaii, the ILMT telescope is a part of Devasthal Observatory is located in the remote mountains of Uttarakhand province in northern India (west of Nepal). The telescope is designed to monitor the sky and identify objects such as supernovae, gravitational lenses, space debris, asteroids and other transient and variable phenomena.

An image of the ILMT mirror taken during testing at Liege in Belgium. Credit: ILMT Collaboration / University of Liege

Dr. Paul Hicksona UBC Physics and Astronomy Professor and a pioneer in liquid mirror technology, has over the years perfected the technology at Large Zenith telescope (LZT). Located at UBC’s Malcolm Knapp Research Forest east of Vancouver, BC, the LZT was the largest liquid metal mirror before ILMT became operational. Due to his expertise, Dr. Hickson and his colleagues play a crucial role in designing and creating the ILMT air system. The plant gathered its first light in May and will temporarily cease operations in October due to India’s monsoon season.

While it may sound like science fiction, the basics of this technology are pretty simple. The technology comes down to three components, including a bowl that contains a reflective liquid (such as mercury), a rotating section that the Liquid Mirror (LM) sits on top of (powered by air compressors) and a drive system. When turned on, the LM benefits from the fact that the rotational force causes the mirror to assume a parabolic shape, which is ideal for focusing light. At the same time, the liquid mercury is protected by an extremely thin layer of optical quality mylar that prevents small waves from forming (due to wind or rotation).

Liquid mercury is a cheap alternative to glass mirrors, which are very heavy and expensive to manufacture. The reflected light passes through a sophisticated optical corrector with several lenses while an electronic large format camera in focus records the images. As Dr. Hockson explained in a UBC Science press release:

“The mirror rotates once every eight seconds and floats on a film of compressed air that is about 10 microns thick. By comparison, a human hair is about 70 microns thick. The air layers are so sensitive that even smoke particles can damage them. A second air cushion prevents the rotor from The rotation of the earth causes the images to slide over the camera, but this movement is electronically compensated.

“The camera has a correction lens that is specially designed to remove the curvature of the star track. Stars go in circles around the North Pole, around the North Star. If you take a time exposure, the stars do not go in straight lines, they go in arcs or circles. But this the corrector is designed to correct for it to remove the curvature to straighten the star grooves, giving us sharp images. “

The Devasthal optical telescope at 3.6 m at night. Credit: WEATHER

Ordinary science activities are scheduled to begin later this year. At this time, ILMT is expected to collect approximately 10 GB of data each night that will be analyzed for stellar sources. These sources will then be selected for follow-up observations at 3.6 meters (11.8 feet). Devasthal optical telescope (DOT) and its sophisticated spectroscopic instruments. As part of a facility monitored by Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES) – which includes ILMT and the ancient Devesthal Temple – DOT has the award to be the largest optical telescope in India.

In particular, ILMT will search for astronomical phenomena that are at the forefront of astronomical research today. This includes variable objects, stars that vary in brightness over time due to changes in their physical properties, or objects that hinder them (planets, dust rings, etc.). Transient phenomena, on the other hand, refer to short-lived events such as supernovae, fast radio bursts (FRB), gamma-ray bursts (GRB), gravitational microlenses, etc. The study of these objects will lead to breakthroughs in the fields of astrophysics and cosmology.

In addition to ARIES and UBC, other organizations that make up the ILMT include collaboration Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), den Ulugh Beg Astronomical Institute (portion of Uzbek Academy of Sciences), University of Liege, Royal Observatory of BelgiumPoznan Observatory in Poland, Laval University, University of Montreal, University of Toronto, York University and University of Victoria in Canada.

Further reading: UBC

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