Mountain-top telescopes and stars that don't twinkle
Infrared image of a zebra from the London Zoo.
Credit: Steve Lowe
Right now I am very excited about the possibility of working on a new small telescope in southern Utah. This telescope was funded by a private donation and will be run by the University of Utah. We even found a mountain top in the middle of nowhere that this telescope will call home.
Why this particular mountain? There are essentially three reasons:
It doesn't make the stars twinkle
The first two reasons are so obvious that I am almost embarrassed. The last reason is not quite so intuitive. What makes a star twinkle and why do we care? This goes back to a post I made a few months ago.
The basic idea here is that the churning atmosphere blurs your astronomical image. Local geography and weather patterns can either mitigate or exaggerate this effect. It is difficult to predict and many measurements need to be done to determine what is actually happening. Cameras were placed all around southern Utah on various mountain tops to observe the North Star over the course of the year. The mountain top that produced the highest resolution image of the star won the competition. That was Frisco Peak.
The telescope that will be placed on Frisco Peak was built by a very specialized company. This is quite rare–more typical are either large custom-made telescopes or small amateur telescopes. This telescope falls in the middle. It is bought off the shelf but is far superior to the commercially made amateur telescopes.
We are now discussing plans for this telescope, like the type of cameras that should be used. There is a strong interest in building an infrared camera. This allows us to see through large clouds of dust and allows us to see very distant galaxies.
Like most people, I am much more experienced with cameras in the visible spectrum. I work on CCDs in Berkeley and have barely used anything in the infrared. CCDs are made of silicon which is sensitive to light that can be seen with the naked eye (plus a little more red than what can be seen).
However, there is a lot of information in the sky that is too red to be seen with the naked eye and too red to be detected with a silicon detector. New materials are required for detectors in this wavelength range. One of the major new materials for infrared detectors is a blend of mercury, cadmium and telluride, usually called Mer-Cad-Tell in the astro community. The wavelength range of the detector can be tuned by changing the amount of mercury in the blend.
Clearly, a lot of the legwork has been done for this new telescope. We have the funding, we have a vendor, and we have a location. Now all that's left is to prioritize our science goals and to figure out how to get our hands on some mer-cad-tell.
Kyle S. Dawson is engaged in post-doctorate studies of distant supernovae and development of a proposed space-based telescope at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.