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Global telescope gets first light at SA observatory

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The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope network has come one step closer to completion with the first installation of three telescopes in Sutherland. The telescope network will be used to study exoplanets, supernovae and gamma-ray bursts.

The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) network has come a step closer to completion with the installation and first light of three new 1-metre sized telescopes at the South African Astronomical Observatory’s (SAAO) observing site at Sutherland in South Africa.

The telescopes are part of a network of telescopes spread around the world used to study time domain astrophysics. This branch of astronomy is concerned with the study of objects which vary with time, or which change their appearance with time due to interactions with other objects. Examples of the types of objects which will be studied with the telescopes include exoplanets, supernovae, gamma-ray bursts and minor planets in our solar system. In order to study these types of objects in detail, astronomers need to be able to observe them over long periods. With a single telescope this is not possible as daylight interrupts observations, but placing several telescopes around the world in different time zones means that once daylight approaches at one observing site, astronomers can switch to a telescope located at another site.

“The South African Astronomical Observatory is pleased to collaborate with the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope project, and we are excited by the prospects for both scientific observations and public outreach activities,”” said Ted Williams, Director of SAAO. A team of engineers, technicians and astronomy postdoctoral fellow Abiy Tekola, convened at Sutherland for three weeks earlier this year to install and test the new telescopes.

Annie Hjelstrom of LCOGT, the project engineer responsible for the successful installation, commented: “”We had a great installation team, SAAO and SALT staff were very helpful, but this is also the culmination of eight years of design and development. Each telescope is built, configured, tested, and then dismantled at the Goleta, California headquarters before we put them back together on site.”” To date LCOGT has installed four other 1-metre telescopes around the globe: an operational prototype at the McDonald Observatory, Texas, US (April 2012) and three science-grade telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), Chile (October 2012). The trio of telescopes at Sutherland brings the observatory’s total of operational 1-metre telescopes to seven. Two more will be installed mid-year at the Siding Spring Observatory, Australia to complete the southern ring, and a second telescope will be installed at the McDonald Observatory before the end of the year. According to Tim Brown, Science Director of LCOGT, the 1-metre telescope network at Sutherland adds a critical resource for the research community. “”Because the network will span both hemispheres, and because one or more LCOGT nodes will always be in the dark, astronomers can observe from anywhere on Earth at nearly any time.”” LCOGT staff astronomer Rachel Street added: “”We are very much looking forward to getting the 1-metre network commissioned for science. These telescopes are ideal for the exoplanet characterisation, supernovae follow-up and solar system studies our teams specialise in.”” LCOGT is a private, non-profit science institute engaged in time domain astrophysics. The organisation owns and operates the two 2-metre Faulkes Telescopes, and is in the midst of deploying a global network of 1-metre telescopes. About a third of the network science time in the southern hemisphere will be dedicated to the astronomy program of the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance. LCOGT also has a science partnership with the SAAO and SAAO astronomers will be using the telescopes for their science programs within the next couple of months. Additionally, the telescopes will be used for science education and outreach activities in South Africa and across the continent. The SAAO based educational program will introduce learners, educators and amateur astronomers to research-based astronomy.

Fig. 1. Las Cumbres Observatory site at the SAAO observing station at Sutherland, South Africa. The three identical domes in the centre of the picture are the Las Cumbres Global Observatory Telescopes. The SALT can be seen in the background on the right hand side. The IRSF telescope can be seen in the background on the left hand side (silver dome) and the SAAO 1.9m telescope can be seen in the central background.

Fig. 2. First light image of M104, the Sombrero Galaxy, a spiral galaxy viewed edge on in the constellation of Virgo located 28 million light years away. The dark region cutting across the central bulge of the galaxy is a dust lane, a ring of dust that surrounds the centre of the galaxy.

Fig. 3. First light image of M83, the Pinwheel Galaxy, a face on spiral galaxy located in the constellation of Ursa Major 21 million light years away.

Fig. 4. First light image of Trumpler 14, an open cluster and star-forming region near the bright star eta Carina located about 7050 light years away within our own Milky Way Galaxy.

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