A new instrument for the world's largest optical telescope, the Large Binocular Telescope on Mount Graham (Ariz.), allows astronomers to observe the faintest and most distant objects in the universe.
Where stars are born: The first LUCIFER observations of star-forming regions are giving scientists an idea of the new instrument's enormous potential. This image depicts a stellar nursery in the Milky Way about 8,000 light years from Earth. Such clouds are typically opaque to visible light. However, infrared light detected by LUCIFER can penetrate the dust.
Credit: (Photo by Arjan Bik)
Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) partners in the U.S, Germany and Italy announced April 21 that the first of two new innovative near-infrared cameras/spectrographs for the LBT is now available to astronomers for scientific observations at the telescope on Mount Graham in southeastern Arizona.
After more than a decade of design, manufacturing and testing, the new instrument – dubbed LUCIFER 1 – provides a powerful tool to gain spectacular insights into the universe – from the Milky Way to extremely distant galaxies. LUCIFER, built by a consortium of German institutes, will be followed by an identical twin instrument that will be delivered to the telescope in early 2011.
"With the large light-gathering power of the LBT, astronomers are now able to collect the spectral fingerprints of the faintest and most distant objects in the universe," said LBT director Richard Green, a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory.
LUCIFER 1 and its twin are mounted at the focus points of the LBT's two giant 8.4-meter (27.6 foot) diameter telescope mirrors. Each instrument is cooled to -213 degrees Celsius in order to observe in the near-infrared wavelength range. Near-infrared observations are essential for understanding the formation of stars and planets in our galaxy as well as revealing the secrets of the most distant and very young galaxies.
LUCIFER's innovative design allows astronomers to observe in unprecedented detail, for example star forming regions, which are commonly hidden by dust clouds.
The instrument is remarkably flexible, combining a large field of view with a high resolution. It provides three exchangeable cameras for imaging and spectroscopy in different resolutions according to observational requirements.
Astronomers use spectroscopy to analyze incoming light and answer questions such as how stars and galaxies formed and what they are made of.
These two images show the starburst galaxy NGC 1569, which is forming stars at a rate that is 100 times faster than what is typically observed in the Milky Way. LUCIFER's sensitive infrared vision reveals glowing red clouds of dust enshrouding newly formed stars.
Credit: Photo by Anna Pasquali
The instruments were built by a consortium of five German institutes led by the Center for Astronomy of Heidelberg University, together with the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, the Astronomical Institute of the Ruhr-University in Bochum, and the University of Applied Sciences in Mannheim.
The LBT is a collaboration among the Italian astronomical community (National Institute of Astrophysics), the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, Northern Arizona University, the LBT Beteiligungsgesellschaft in Germany (Max-Planck-Institut fϋr Astronomie in Heidelberg, Zentrum fur Astronomie der Universität Heidelberg, Astrophysikalisches Institut in Potsdam, Max-Planck-Institut fϋr Extraterrestrische Physik in Munich, and Max-Planck-Institut fϋr Radioastronomie in Bonn), and the Ohio State University and Research Corporation (Ohio State University, University of Notre Dame, University of Minnesota and University of Virginia).
- LUCIFER is an acronym for: Large Binocular Telescope Near-infrared Utility with Camera and Integral Field Unit for Extragalactic Research
- LUCIFER's three exchangeable cameras are available for direct imaging, long-slit-spectroscopy and multi-object-spectroscopy. Two of them are optimized for seeing-limited conditions, a third camera for diffraction-limited cases will be used after completion of the LBT adaptive secondary mirror system.
- Using a four Mega-pixel Hawaii2-camera the instrument covers a comparatively large field of view of 4x4 arc minutes (about 1/50th of the full moon on sky).
- According to observational requirements, presently a set of five broad-band filters (z, J, H, K, Ks), 12 medium and narrow-band filters and three different high-resolution spectroscopic gratings are available.
- A special feature of the LUCIFER is 10 fixed and up to 22 exchangeable masks which can be used for longslit and multi-object spectroscopy (MOS). This multiplex-technology developed at MPE allows the spectroscopy of about two dozen objects simultaneously and reduces the costs per photon and observing time at the telescope dramatically. All laser-cut MOS-masks are stored in a separate magazine which can be replaced with new masks at fully cryogenic temperatures using an external cryostat and a vacuum interlock to the main instrument. This work can be done within a few hours during a normal service-interval in day-time and avoids a several days lasting warming-up and cooling-down cycle of the complete LUCIFER-instrument preserving valuable observing time.