Gemini and Magellan telescopes: Driving Australian astronomical research excellence

For Australia to remain a world leader in astronomical research and instrumentation, access to the largest aperture optical telescopes is essential.

Building and operating large-scale optical telescopes requires a level of resources and expertise that is often best realised through international collaboration. Arrangements with existing facilities, and participation in multi-national partnerships to share costs and pool expertise, is needed.

That is where Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL) is helping. By making this technology and equipment available to researchers, AAL is helping Australian astronomers make important discoveries about our universe.

How does the AAL Facility help?

AAL’s highest priority is to enable Australian access to large optical telescopes. AAL is supported by the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

Since 2007, AAL has managed funding to guarantee Australian participation in the international Gemini Observatory. This gives Australia 6.19% of the time on Gemini’s world-class 8.1-metre twin telescopes in Chile and Hawaii.

AAL has also increased access for Australian researchers by purchasing an additional 15 nights per year since 2008 on the two 6.5-metre Magellan telescopes in Chile, which are also equipped with a world-class instrument suite.

These facilities are in heavy demand; Australian proposals typically request three times the amount of time available, and more than 80 Australian scientists apply for time each year, along with international collaborators from more than 70 overseas institutions.

Results

Access to world-class large optical telescopes has allowed Australian teams to make many important discoveries such as the recent observation of possibly the oldest known star born in the early Universe.

Reported in the journal Nature, this work relied on Australian access to the Magellan telescopes to identify unexpected abundances of elements that require scientists to re-think how the first generation of stars formed.

From January 2008 to June 2013, access to Gemini and Magellan telescopes resulted in 239 refereed publications from Australian authors, which have received 7306 citations to date. In 2012 alone, these publications involved more than 100 Australian-based researchers collaborating with more than 450 international co-authors from around 150 institutions across the globe.

“Australian access to Gemini and Magellan has played a key role in keeping our researchers at the forefront of the discipline. Our scientific and instrumentation contributions to Gemini have boosted Australia’s reputation as a valuable and sought-after partner in international astronomy collaborations, and helped foster a new Cooperative Research Centre in Space Environment Management.”

Professor Brian Schmidt, Nobel Laureate and Distinguished Professor at ANU

Partnership with the Gemini Observatory has also allowed Australia to play a key role in developing state-of-the-art telescope instrumentation and expertise. The Australian National University (ANU) was contracted to build two major Gemini instruments, each worth approximately $6 million, and it has teamed with AAL and international collaborators to construct the next major Gemini instrument.

ANU possesses significant expertise in adaptive optics – the technologies which ensure telescopes capture images that are un-distorted by the atmosphere which surrounds them.  This expertise has been further strengthened through involvement in Gemini resulting productive partnerships with the private sector, including with Australian company Electro Optic Systems Pty Ltd.  Together, they are developing a system using lasers and optics to monitor and manage space debris to avoid collisions with satellites. These activities will be pursued within a new Cooperative Research Centre for Space Environment Management.

Did you know?

  • AAL is a not-for-profit company and was established in 2007 under NCRIS, to advance the infrastructure priorities of the Australian Astronomy Decadal Plan 2006–2015.
  • Astronomy remains one of Australia’s strongest areas of research:Articles produced by Australian astronomers are cited significantly more often than those produced by their European counterparts, and close to as often as those researchers from the United States.AAL’s support is critical to maintaining this high level of impact of Australian astronomy.

The Australian Government is proud to provide funding for AAL’s work through NCRIS.

You can find out more about AAL and about other NCRIS initiatives on their websites.