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15th Anniversary Celebrations 17 Apr 2019

LT birthday cake (artist's impression).

Adapted (badly) by J. Marchant from free cake drawing released under Creative Commons CC0 at Pixabay.

This year the Liverpool Telescope celebrates 15 years of continuous robotic observation of the Universe. The telescope went robotic for the first time on 22nd April 2004 (see news item) and routine robotic operations began in December 2004 (see the Night Reports from that time for a bit of nostalgia). Since then the LT has been delivering high impact science by robotically observing the night sky from its home on the Canary Island of La Palma.

To mark this milestone, Liverpool John Moores University's Astrophysics Research Institute is holding a celebration on 24th April at nearby Sensor City in Liverpool. The evening will bring together members of the LT team, past and present, to provide an exciting history from concept to construction with an insight into daily operation.

Prof Iain Steele will talk about how and why the initial concept came about, the building of the telescope, and its first ever observation ("first light"). Dr Chris Copperwheat will review the impact on science that the LT has made over the years, and Dr Helen Jermak will talk about the LT going into the future.

LT helps discover huge nova "super-remnant" in another galaxy 9 January 2019

This is a composite image of Liverpool Telescope data (bottom left) and Hubble Space Telescope data (top right) of the nova super-remnant. M31N 2008-12a is in the middle of the image. Credit: Matt Darnley / LJMU.

An international team of astrophysicists have uncovered an enormous bubble currently being "blown" by the regular eruptions from a binary star system within the Andromeda Galaxy.

As reported in this week's Nature, recent observations with the Liverpool Telescope and Hubble Space Telescope, supported by spectroscopy from the Gran Telescopio Canarias, and the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (some of the largest astronomy facilities on Earth) discovered this enormous shell-like nebula surrounding ‘M31N 2008-12a’, a recurrent novae located in our neighbouring Andromeda Galaxy. At almost 400 lightyears across and still growing, this shell is far bigger than a typical nova remnant (usually around a lightyear in size) and even larger than most supernova remnants.

Dr Matt Darnley, lead author on the study and Reader in Time Domain Astrophysics at Liverpool John Moores University's Astrophysics Research Institute explains: “Each year ‘12a’ (as we lovingly refer to it) undergoes a thermonuclear eruption on the surface of its white dwarf. These are essentially hydrogen bombs, which eject material equivalent to about the mass of the Moon in all directions at a few thousand kilometres per second. These ejecta act like a snow plough, piling the surrounding ‘interstellar medium’ up to form the shell we observe – the outer ‘skin’ of the bubble, or the ‘super-remnant’ as we have named it.”

These new observations coupled with state-of-the-art hydrodynamic simulations (carried out at LJMU and the University of Manchester) have revealed that this vast shell is in fact the remains of not just one nova eruption but possibly millions – all from the same system.

Despite its uniqueness and staggering scale, the discovery of this super-remnant may have further significance.

Dr Matt Darnley continued: “Studying 12a and its super-remnant could help is to understand how some white dwarfs grow to their critical upper mass and how they actually explode once they gets there as a ‘Type Ia Supernova’. Type Ia supernovae are critical tools used to work out how the universe expands and grows.”

In a related work, also led by Matt Darnley, this team has predicted that 12a will ultimately explode as a Type Ia Supernova in less than 20,000 years – a very short time in cosmological terms.

Dr Rebekah Hounsell, second author on both studies and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, explains: “These are some of the largest explosions in the Universe (type Ia supernovae). Such an event in the Andromeda galaxy (M31) would be one of the closest supernovae observed by telescopes (the last one in M31 was in 1885 and in the Large Magellanic Cloud in 1987). The last one in our own galaxy (that we actually saw) was 1604. Although we’ve predicted that 12a will undergo a supernovae explosion in less than twenty thousand years – that sounds a long time, but of course that could still mean within the next decade or so.”

New Robotic Telescope website launched 28 Feb 2019
Locations of LT and NRT Location of the LT and NRT in the northern part of the Observatorio del Roque de Los Muchachos, on the summit of the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain. Image credit: Google (aerial pic), J.Marchant (annotation).

We have recently launched a new website for the Liverpool Telescope 2 or "New Robotic Telescope (NRT)" project. The webpages at www.robotictelescope.org detail the science case, NRT team and latest news items in relation to the new telescope.

The NRT team are currently preparing the Phase A design of the new 4-metre fully robotic and autonomous telescope, ready for a design board review in the Spring. The NRT will slew faster than the LT and be on target taking data within 30 seconds of trigger, allowing us to explore more rapidly fading targets.

The proposed location for the NRT is 400 metres from the LT on La Palma at the disused Carlsberg Meridian Telescope site, 100m from the William Herschel Telescope. There are also plans in place to repurpose the LT to support the scientific operations of the NRT and facilitate gravitational wave follow-up, along with facilitating a variety of new projects for the National Schools Observatory. The re-design of the LT is to allow a 2°×2° wide-field camera and a fibre-fed spectrograph as the main two instruments.

Keep an eye on the NRT website's latest news for updates on funding and design board reviews.

NRT science session at NAM2019 1 Mar 2019
Artist's impression of LT2 Current artist's impression of NRT. ©2019 NRT Group.

The New Robotic Telescope (NRT) group will be organising a session at NAM2019, this year’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM), from 30th June – 4th July. Hosted by the Royal Astronomical Society, NAM2019 will be held at Lancaster University. As part of the 4-day conference, two 90 minute sessions will be held to discuss the future science topics for the NRT, along with the instrumentation requirements for the most effective time domain research.

Abstracts to NAM2019 are now being accepted; the deadline is 15th March.

We invite all our current LT and future LT/NRT users to submit a poster or talk abstract to discuss the exciting new science that can be carried out with a 4-metre robotic telescope, and we strongly encourage all to attend to join in the discussion.

First observations in mid-infrared 5 Feb 2019

False-colour contrast-enhanced thermal image of part of the Moon's surface during a lunar eclipse. The bright patches are some of the many "hot spots" where the lunar soil was warmer than its surroundings. Credit & ©2019 Maisie Rashman, Iain Steele, LT Group.

The Liverpool Telescope (LT) recently made mid-infrared (mid-IR) images of the Moon during January's lunar eclipse. This was a first for the LT, which normally observes in the optical or near-infrared part of the spectrum.

Observing in this part of the spectrum is difficult because the telescope and instrument optics, plus the Earth's atmosphere itself, actually glow in this wavelength range — it's like trying to observe optically in the daytime with a luminous telescope. Astronomy in the mid-IR with ground-based telescopes is therefore a tricky process, normally involving cryogenically cooled instruments, and "chopping" and "nodding" techniques to rapidly alternate observations of the target with those of a blank patch of sky nearby. The latter signal is subtracted from the former to remove the extra signal from the atmosphere and equipment, leaving just the signal from the target.

By contrast, these observations were made as part of a project to see what data could be collected with an off-the-shelf uncooled thermal infrared microbolometer array camera, in this case a FLIR Tau 2 640, sensitive to the 7-14 micron wavelength range. These cameras are much cheaper than their cooled counterparts.

The observations began as the Moon entered the Earth's shadow and sunlight was progressively cut off from the lunar surface. Differences in thermal conductivity of the lunar regolith caused some places to cool at a slower rate than their surroundings, becoming apparent as many "hot spots" in the images.

Maisie Rashman, co-investigator in this experiment and a PhD student at Liverpool John Moores University's Astrophysics Research Institute, said "Once partial eclipse started we were able to see lots of small very bright, almost point, sources appear. Around the maximum, the temperature of the moon had dropped enough that the edge of the moon was almost indistinguishable."

This isn't the first time the Moon has been observed in mid-IR during an eclipse, but as LT Director Prof. Iain Steele says, it's "the first ever infrared image of an eclipse taken with a microbolometer array camera," and also the first time the LT has ventured into the mid-IR part of the spectrum.

The project was partly supported by a Royal Astronomical Society Patricia Tomkins grant.

Quicklook upgrade 7 Feb 2019

Example of analysis windows available with the new FITS viewer on the quicklook page.

The LT website's "Quicklook" page has had an upgrade. In keeping with the paradigm of "quick" in "quicklook", it's now possible to use a FITS viewer on the page to perform basic analysis in the browser itself, as well as examine the images in better detail than the JPEG without having to download the FITS file.

We're using the SAOImage JS9 FITS viewer, a JavaScript version of the SAOImage ds9 FITS display program. Both versions were developed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA.