Adventures in time domain space Liverpool Telescope in La Palma
Adventures in time domain space Bubble Nebula taken by the Liverpool Telescope

Adventures in time domain space

Astrophysicists in Liverpool are already leading the field in space discovery. Now they’re scoping out what they would need for the next generation. The Project Scientist for Liverpool Telescope 2 talks to It’s Liverpool.

Physics is cool. Like bow ties and fez’s science and space are just cool. You’d be forgiven for hearing the phrase Liverpool Telescope and searching the city’s skyline for a landmark you’ve missed but you won’t find it here. Instead, the telescope is located on La Palma and is managed and operated by a team of astrophysicists based at Liverpool John Moore’s University.

The telescope is unique. Built, funded, constructed, owned and operated by the university the telescope is used by astronomers, academics and students across the world who want to see live and recorded pictures from space. The problem with most telescopes of this scale is that you book a few hours on it and if it clouds over you’ve missed your chance. Instead, the Liverpool Telescope is fully autonomous so it adds the targets it needs to look to a list, administers itself and observes when conditions are right.

Chris Copperwheat, Liverpool Telescope 2 Project Scientist says it is “unique and robotic”.

“There’s a pressing need for a telescope to follow up on the discovery and get the science out. Liverpool Telescope is bigger, it has a larger light collecting power.

“The operating systems, programming code and the language written for the telescope are all written in Liverpool. We have a small staff of ten or eleven with more software engineers than mechanical engineers”. There is robotic control software, scheduling software as well as data retrieval systems for each instrument on the telescope. This telescope, essentially, performs faster and quicker than any human and all the programming is designed to make it autonomous. The telescope can manage and run any of the instruments installed on it – like cameras, for example – enabling it to capture anything in space.

Schools and scientists can book in time to use the telescope – Liverpool’s Astrophysics Research Institute shares a building with the National Schools Observatory, 5% of the telescope time is for students who want to use a research grade telescope in classrooms which they can access by web interface.

The real strength of the telescope is in Time Domain Science. This covers stars that pulsate or vary, asteroids, comets, near-Earth objects or explosions in space like novae or supernovae and gamma ray bursts. These are called events. Think of an explosion and it happens fast. You want to be able to capture it as quickly as possible.~

Chris explains more, “If one of these happens in space then what usually happens is the telescope and its instruments have to be altered by people manning the equipment. The Liverpool Telescope can react much quicker than any person. It can focus on the event and start taking data. It’s important because these things fade very quickly and the mission will start spreading out in a cloud with surrounding material that drops off very quickly.”

By studying these explosions, the team can investigate what causes them and how and why they happen. “What we do is forensic astronomy. We look at what exploded rather than the explosion. The closer you get to the initial explosion the closer you get to what was there beforehand”. The telescope helps them to react to the surrounding material, to get their quickly and understand about their initial star, learning more about the physics that led to the event.

Chris is leading the project for Liverpool Telescope 2, the successor to the Liverpool Telescope.

“There are a number of things to improve. Time Domain Science, we’re on the vanguard of that and it’s off extreme importance across astronomy but more facilities are studying these explosive events”.

Understanding how important and significant these space events are, more investment and funding is being pushed into studying and recording them and their causes. Liverpool Telescope 2 will be bigger and better.

“There’s a pressing need for a telescope to follow up on the discovery and get the science out. Liverpool Telescope is bigger, it has a larger light collecting power. Imagine if you go out with a bucket in the rain, go out with a larger bucket you’ll get more rain. We want to capture more photons to be faster, on target and taking in data much quicker, say 20 to 30 seconds so we’re closer to explosive events.

Mapping space and events in space has become and will continue to be a major source of research for astrophysicists. The team in Liverpool has been at the forefront of that activity for a decade and plan to do so for the next.

Find out more about Liverpool’s Astrophysics Research Institute


Published: 03/02/2014