Exclusive: Liverpool scientists get OK for world’s largest robotic telescope

A 3D render of inside the enclosure showing the telescope structure during a typical night’s observing. Image: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.A 3D render of inside the enclosure showing the telescope structure during a typical night’s observing. Image: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.
A 3D render of inside the enclosure showing the telescope structure during a typical night’s observing. Image: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.

Scientists in Liverpool have been given the green light for building to start on the world’s largest robotic telescope, LiverpoolWorld has learned.

The £24 million, four-metre-diameter telescope will be able to respond quickly to explosive and rapidly-fading astronomical events such as supernovae and also aid the search for new planets.

The New Robotic Telescope (NRT) will be built by an international consortium led by the UK’s Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU), Spain’s University of Oviedo and the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC).

The project has received £4 million funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to allowing building to get underway.

The telescope, which will be located on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, is to be solely manned by a small team of around a dozen staff at the LJMU “control centre” working on the telescope from Liverpool.

3D render of the completed New Robotic Telescope in its proposed location at the mountain observatory. Enclosure is open to expose the telescope for astronomy operations.  Photo: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.3D render of the completed New Robotic Telescope in its proposed location at the mountain observatory. Enclosure is open to expose the telescope for astronomy operations.  Photo: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.
3D render of the completed New Robotic Telescope in its proposed location at the mountain observatory. Enclosure is open to expose the telescope for astronomy operations. Photo: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.

Why it’s important

Scientists will be able to use the fast robotic telescope to observe exploding stars and gamma ray bursts, offering new opportunities for astronomers to understand the universe.

Dr Chris Copperwheat, Liverpool Telescope Astronomer in Charge at Liverpool John Moores University said: "We will be able to observe things like a supernova explosion and our telescope will be able to see it before anyone else in the world.

"Other telescopes look at huge areas of the sky but will not be as fast as this telescope, the speed at which it is able to react and take pictures will reveal things that would be impossible to detect with a slower telescope.

“With telescopes, the thing we always talk about is size. Bigger telescopes enable us to see fainter things and further into the universe.

"If you think about a bucket collecting raindrops, a bigger bucket will collect more. We are collecting photons and looking at light.”

Legacy

The NRT will build on the highly successful legacy of the Liverpool Telescope (LT) which is also robotic and operated by LJMU. It started operating in 2004.

The LT was built entirely from parts in a factory based in Birkenhead, Merseyside, and the parts were broken up and reassembled in the Canary Islands before it was built.

Dr Copperwheat said as there is a larger international consortium involved with building the new telescope it is likely that there will be a global input into its construction and bids for the work have just been put out to tender.

The new telescope, which will be 100 metres away from the existing LT in La Palma, will have a four-metre primary mirror made up of 18 hexagonal segments providing a sensitivity four times greater than that of the LT.

How it works

Dr Copperwheat said: “One of the great advantages of what we do is that the telescope is completely robotic and there is not a need for any humans to be there at all.

“A lot of people when they hear "robotic telescope", they think about remote control, but we don’t have anyone working through the night. The telescope has an artificial intelligence algorithm, so we basically get into the office at 9am, have a look and see what the telescope did the night before.

"We may have someone in the early evening keeping an eye on the webcams, but we programme the telescope to choose what to observe. We go to bed and wake up to see what it’s done."

He said that during the pandemic other telescopes based on La Palma had to close because astronomers normally have to fly out to get the data: "We were able to continue to operate the existing LT through a web browser."

3D render of the completed New Robotic Telescope in its proposed location at the mountain observatory. Telescope enclosure is closed during the daytime to protect the telescope. Photo: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.3D render of the completed New Robotic Telescope in its proposed location at the mountain observatory. Telescope enclosure is closed during the daytime to protect the telescope. Photo: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.
3D render of the completed New Robotic Telescope in its proposed location at the mountain observatory. Telescope enclosure is closed during the daytime to protect the telescope. Photo: Kinsonov Architects / LJMU.

Access for all

Being able to operate the  telescope from a laptop also benefits thousands of UK schoolchildren from primary school age up to sixth formers studying for A-levels. LJMU started the National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) programme more than a decade ago and offers free dedicated observing time to over 3,000 schools in the UK and Ireland and access to the Liverpool Telescope through their school computers.

They also run regular professional sessions for teachers, deliver outreach work in schools and offer students the chance to be part of an annual work experience programme.

Dr Copperwheat said there is potential with the new telescope to “go global” and expand the NSO project to children worldwide so they can have access to it. "We have started a pilot using the existing LT with schoolchildren in Thailand.

“Our technology can enable children in developing countries, who would not normally ever have a chance of having accessing a telescope, the opportunity to connect with something amazing.

“As long as they have a computer in their classroom, they can be part of this."

Members of the public can view images from the LT on its dedicated website and the same access will be offered for the new telescope.

Construction and funding

The STFC funding will assist with the science planning, management and systems engineering. It will also support the construction of the ‘clamshell’ telescope enclosure, an enclosure designed to protect the telescope from extreme weather and to allow fast rotation onto targets.

Alongside the STFC award, other funding for the new telescope is coming from international partners, primarily partners in Spain at the Institute of Astrophysics in the Canaries, and the University of Oviedo, according to Dr Copperwheat.

He said: “There is still a small shortfall on the overall budget of a few million, but we plan to fill that with the addition of another international partner. We’re close enough in terms of the funding to commit to building the telescope.

“For large telescopes the item with the longest lead time is always the very big primary mirror, the fabrication of which is very technical and long winded.

“That will start next year, along with the development of other parts of the telescope and enclosure at various institutions.”

Professor Grahame Blair, STFC Executive Director for Programmes, said: “Despite our ever-increasing knowledge of the universe, there are still some celestial phenomena that remain elusive.

“This fast, efficient eye on the sky will be a real asset to astronomers, who will be able to utilise its capability to see events we’ve never managed to capture before.

“The UK’s world-class skills in engineering, software development and design will bring this exciting new facility to life.”

Working together

NASA and its partners announced in August that they have completed final tests on the James Webb Space Telescope which could be launched into space later this year. The next-generation telescope will be the successor to the old Hubble Space Telescope. 

Dr Copperwheat said “there are big science crossovers” and the images from both telescopes will be able to complement each other. The NASA telescope will be “working in the infrared” in space and exploring a different part of the light from stars and galaxies compared to the new robotic telescope in the Canary Islands. 

First light, first star

Dr Copperwheat explained: “The building should be complete by the end of 2025 for what we call ‘first light’ which is the first time we point the telescope at a star.

“Full science operations to begin in 2026.

“In 2012, I was the first employee at LJMU who started work on the new telescope project, so it’s really been my baby and it is incredibly exciting that we now have funding to start building.

“We’ve been working on it for a long time, but now is the moment when it’s coming off the drawing board to become glass and steel.”

📧 Contact us: email us at [email protected] or find us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

Related topics: