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UK invests £4M in world’s largest robotic telescope

06 Sep 2021

The £24M New Robotic Telescope to be situated on La Palma, Spain, will be 4x more sensitive than previous record-holder.

Construction of the world’s largest robotic telescope can now get underway following a £4 million funding injection from the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The four-meter-diameter telescope, which has total budget of £24 million ($33.2M / €28.0M), will be four times more sensitive and 10 times faster than the previous record-holder.

The New Robotic Telescope (NRT) will be built by an international consortium led by the UK’s Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), Spain’s University of Oviedo, and the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC). NRT will allow highly sensitive, efficient and fast response observing of the most dynamic and variable objects in the universe.

The fully robotic telescope is designed to be able to respond rapidly to “explosive and rapidly-fading astronomical events”, offering new opportunities for astronomers globally to understand the universe. Astronomers and scientists will be able to use the NRT to observe, for example, exploding stars, including supernovae and gamma ray bursts, and also search for new planets.

Dr Chris Copperwheat, LT Astronomer in Charge at LJMU, commented, “Speed is key and gives us a view of mysteries of the universe which have never been observed before. So much happens in the night sky that we simply miss because we are on to it too late. The NRT will give us an almost immediate eye onto movements and phenomena, giving us an unprecedented insight into the physics of the changing sky.”

High-speed observations

The latest batch of funding by STFC will support the four-year construction phase, specifically in science planning, management, and systems engineering. the new money will also support the construction of the “clamshell” telescope enclosure, which is designed to protect the telescope from extreme weather and to allow fast rotation onto targets.

The NRT is operated remotely and scientists make requests and receive data to and from the NRT through the web. The telescope itself picks the objects to observe, and at the heart of this robotic system is a sophisticated algorithm. STFC will fund the work to create this advanced algorithm, which it describes as “the brain behind the eyes”.

Professor Grahame Blair, STFC Executive Director for Programmes, commented, ”Despite our ever-increasing knowledge of the universe, there are still some celestial phenomena that remain elusive. This fast, efficient eye on the sky will be a real asset to astronomers, who will be able to utilise its capability to see events we’ve never managed to capture before.”

The NRT will be built alongside its sibling facility, the Liverpool Telescope (LT), which is also run by LJMU, on the island of La Palma in the Canaries. The new scope will build on the successful legacy of the LT and will have a 4m primary mirror composed of 18 hexagonal segments providing a sensitivity four times greater than that of the LT.

The NRT will also respond to transient triggers from space-based or survey telescopes within 30 seconds, capturing the first seconds of evolution after an explosion. It will be a key part of a multi-facility international approach to transient events designed to capture the most science possible.

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