SAAO - South African Astronomical Observatory
22.03.2013 00:00 Age: 5 yrs
Category: SAAO Press Releases
By: Dr Abiy Tekola

Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope: first light at the SAAO

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. 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.

The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) network has come a significant 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, 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 the the study of objects which vary intrinsically 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 new telescopes at Sutherland 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 time periods. With a single telescope this is not possible as daylight interrupts observations. However, placing several telescopes around the world in different time zones means that once daylight approaches at one observing site astronomers can switch seamlessly to using a telescope located at another site where it is dark. The addition of the telescope node at Sutherland is crucial as it will allow astronomers to conduct observations over long time periods in the South without interruptions.

"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." Ted Williams, Director of SAAO said.

A team of LCOGT engineers and technicians, and LCOGT/SAAO astronomy postdoctoral scholar Abiy Tekola, convened at Sutherland for three weeks during February and early March 2013 to install and test the new telescopes. The telescopes arrived on site on the 18th February and were lifted by cranes into the domes the next day. The first of the three telescopes was fully assembled by the end of the 20th February and the telescope went on-sky for the first time that night. The second and third telescopes followed over the next two days.

Annie Hjelstrom of LCOGT, the project engineer responsible for the successful installation, commented:
"We had a great installation team, and 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 identical 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 astronomical 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.  Also, these telescopes - robotic, responsive, and numerous -  will allow massive but carefully-directed observing campaigns that could never be done before."

LCOGT staff astronomer Rachel Street added:
"We're very much looking forward to getting the 1-metre network commissioned for science. These telescopes are ideal for the exoplanet characterization, supernovae follow-up and solar system studies our teams specialize in."

LCOGT is a private, nonprofit 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 within South Africa and across the continent. The SAAO based educational program will introduce learners, educators and amateur astronomers to research-based astronomy.

Dr Abiy Tekola
tel: 021 447-0025