The Vera C. Rubin Observatory reaches a milestone

The Vera C. Rubin Observatory reached a major construction recently.

The primary instrument at this revolutionary facility is called the Simonyi Survey Telescope.

The massive telescope mount and surrounding structure is ready to be fitted with a “dummy” full size replica of its 8.4m mirror and 32000-megapixel camera and other gear. This will allow full testing and shake down of the mechanical side of the telescope before its main mirror and remarkable camera are installed. Astronomers are really excited about this new observatory and expect it will advance our understanding of the early formation and structure of the Universe as well as observing events in the Solar System.

There’s already a number of 8m class telescopes operating across the world. So why is the Simonyi Survey Telescope at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory so different?

The telescope has an extremely low centre of gravity and short focal ratio. These combine to make is far manoeuvrable than other large professional telescopes. It can quickly move to different parts of the sky and begin imaging within seconds – probably faster than most amateur telescopes. The 32000-megapixel camera can not only capture more of the sky and in more detail than other comparable telescopes, but the telescope can also produce some 200,000 images per year or nearly 1.3 petabytes of uncompressed data.

These all combine to enable the Simonyi Survey Telescope to image the entire night sky from its location every 2-3 nights.

Why the rush?

Traditional all-sky surveys take several years to complete. Long term surveys across the world – including here in Australia – have helped researchers make and discover billions of stars and galaxies in multiple wavelengths of light. The Universe doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry, so we do we need large observatories that can complete a major sky survey every few nights?

What we’re coming to realise is that the Universe is far from static! It changes from night to night and often on a short timeframe too. Some of these changes are well known and predictable. Examples of these includes Solar System objects as they move around the Sun. Many variable stars have a predictable rise and fall in their light output. Others are less regular. There are also sudden changes. These include events like the recent Supernova explosion in galaxy M10, Other events we’re only just learning about. Mergers of Neutron stars, black holes interacting with stars and gases plus lots more!

Discovering new objects and studying the movement of vast numbers of bodies in the Solar System, especially in the asteroid belts between Mars and Jupiter and further out in the Kuiper Belt will help us learn more about our local Solar neighbourhood. Rapid scans of the night sky will add another layer to our NEO (Near Earth Asteroid) detection programs to help us identify any objects that could pose a threat to us.

The ability to map faint galaxies across large areas of the sky in great detail will also assist in studies of the large-scale structure of the Universe, help us learn more about its formation and the mysteries behind dark energy and dark matter.

Probably what’s has astronomers excited the most is discovering the things they didn’t expect. Every time a major new research facility is opened, we tend to get surprised by something out of left field.

First light is expected at the Simonyi Survey Telescope at the Vera C. Rubin Observatory sometime in 2024 with major research starting soon after. This observatory and other mega telescope projects coming on-line in the follow decades mean Astronomy in the second half of the 21st Century is going to be amazing!


Earl White


9th June 2023


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