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Edinburgh project aims to make city global hub for astrophotonics

08 Feb 2021

Heriot-Watt and UK Astronomy Technology Centre win funding to develop city’s space capabilities.

Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, UK, has joined with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) to make Edinburgh a world centre for astrophotonics – the field that aims to harness advances in photonics to give astronomical instruments unprecedented capabilities.

Heriot-Watt is leading a new consortium, which includes partners from the UKATC, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, and the University of Arizona.

The project has received over £890,000 ($1.2 million) in funding from the UKRI Science and Technology Facilities Council to pursue two main areas of research.

Professor Robert Thomson, head of Heriot-Watt’s Photonic Instrumentation Group, commented, “We find ourselves at a point where conventional approaches to optical instruments like telescopes are reaching their limits.

“Astrophotonic technologies offer a route to circumvent these limits and help astronomers discover more about our universe.” Thomson’s group will focus on developing new optical components.

Thomson added, “Our aim is to use advanced photonic manufacturing techniques to fabricate optics that are not limited in their shape like normal optics. In the long term, this will allow astronomical instruments that are more efficient and lower cost.”

Improving astronomical measurements

Professor Derryck Reid, head of the Ultrafast Optics Group at Heriot-Watt, will focus on improving the way astronomers measure light. “We’re going to demonstrate a new class of small, ultra-stable lasers that will provide a ruler for the wavelength of light. This will allow astronomers to measure the wavelength of starlight extremely precisely, and in a way that allows comparisons over years and even decades,” he said.

“The wavelength signatures of starlight can reveal exciting information about questions such as whether life exists on exoplanets, or if the fundamental constants of physics are in fact changing by tiny amounts.”

Professor Chris Evans, head of science at the UKATC, said, “As we build larger telescopes to look deeper into the universe, they scale upwards in size and cost with traditional optics.

“Establishing this joint project with Heriot-Watt gives us an exciting opportunity to explore the huge potential of new photonic technologies towards the cutting-edge astronomical instruments of the 2030s and beyond.”

The three-year project aims to demonstrate new research and builds on sustained funding to Heriot-Watt from the STFC and other funding organizations such as the EU over the past decade. It will also support work that is taking astrophotonic technology to the higher technology readiness levels needed for deployment on major international projects like the Extremely Large Telescope.

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