A new prototype telescope at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory south of Tucson could soon be part of an ambitious plan to better study gamma rays, the high-energy form of electromagnetic radiation created by such things as supernova explosions and black holes.
The prototype Schwarzschild-Couder Telescope will soon catch its first glimpse of light from the cosmos at the observatory, which is part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and located at the base of Mount Hopkins, 40 miles south of Tucson.
On Thursday evening, astronomers gathered to pop champagne at the observatory after unveiling the new telescope. Officials said the telescope will significantly improve the way gamma rays are studied by astronomers.
The prototype telescope will test a novel dual-mirror design, bucking the traditional single-mirror construction to improve image quality.
The new telescope design is a candidate for use in the Cherenkov Telescope Array, a new effort to study high-energy gamma rays that will involve more than 100 telescopes in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres, said Wystan Benbow, director of a smaller gamma ray telescope array housed at Whipple called VERITAS.
Construction on the Cherenkov array is expected to begin this year and will consist of 118 individual telescopes of three different sizes: 19 telescopes will be built in the Canary Islands and 99 in Paranal, Chile.
Together, the legion of eyes will detect gamma rays over a larger area and a wider field of view than current technology allows.
Benbow said the Cherenkov array will be 10 times more sensitive and will find sources 100 times faster than VERITAS, an array of four telescopes that makes up the most sensitive gamma ray detector on Earth.
“Ultimately, the Schwarzschild-Couder Telescope is designed to improve the ability to detect very high-energy gamma ray sources,” Vladimir Vassiliev, principal investigator for the telescope, said in a prepared statement.
The Crab Nebula is the remnants from a supernova explosion and is an example of a source of high-energy gamma rays, Benbow said, but he also hopes to find new sources of gamma rays.
The new telescope design will allow gamma ray astronomers to use more modern camera sensors. Current gamma ray telescope arrays are using much of the same technology used in the 1960s by his grandfather, Benbow said.
Cherenkov array members first proposed the revolutionary design for the prototype telescope in 2006. Construction was funded in 2012. The steel structure was assembled at the Whipple Observatory in 2016, and mirrors and cameras were installed in 2018.
The prototype’s funding comes from the U.S. National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation program and by the contributions of 30 institutions and five industrial partners in the U.S., Italy, Germany, Japan and Mexico.