Seeing Galaxies in Parallel

Following my first week of lectures in the MSc in High Performance Computing at the University of Edinburgh (which went great, still some module choices to nail down this week), I went to visit the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh.

The Observatory happens to be on a hill right behind where I live in Blackford which was a nice surprise, I hope to go back soon for one of their star-gazing Friday nights where they give members of the public the chance to peer at the sky through a 10″ Meades reflecting telescope among others.

The highlight of my first visit yesterday was coming up close and personal with the K-band Multi-Object Spectrometer (KMOS) detector which has been assembled at the observatory and will shortly be shipped to the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) array in Chile. The KMOS detector is a large piece of optical hardware the size of a small bus which will be fitted to one of the telescopes at the VLT. The KMOS detector is designed to observe up to 24 individual objects simultaneously. Because it is detecting objects in the near-infra red the entire KMOS package is effectively a large deep freezer, or cryostat (maintained at an internal temperature below minus 130 degrees celsius) containing 24 robotic arms, each fitted with a tiny mirror the size of a thumb-tack head. The intense cold prevents any infra red radiation from the detector itself interfering or masking the near-infra red light collected by the telescope.

The 24 robotic arms position their tiny mirrors within the focal plane of the telescope and pick out the 24 objects in the field of view to be observed simultaneously. The main scientific goal of the detector is to study and better understand the formation of highly red-shifted galaxy clusters, i.e. galaxies which formed in the very early beginnings of our universe.

The KMOS detector is expected to ship to the VLT in Chile next March, so a very exciting time for all involved I’m sure. Check out this stunning time lapse film of the VLT array in Chile in action under some beautiful night skies…