Australian involvement in International Telescopes


Australian engagement in international astronomy began with the Anglo-Australian Telescope, a bi-national partnership with the United Kingdom. With the dawning of the era of "8 metre-class" telescopes in the 1990s, Australia began to look further afield to secure access to these new frontline facilities located primarily in Hawaii and in Chile. Efforts to join the European Southern Observatory in 1995/96 were unsuccessful, and instead in 1998, the government announced that Australia would join the Gemini partnership. Australia initially took a 5% share in this US$193 million project, and increased this to 6.2% in 2001. Australian membership in the Gemini Observatory is due to end after 2016.

Since 2007 Australia has also purchased 15 nights per year of observing time from the Carnegie Institution on the twin 6.5 metre Magellan telesopes at Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. Magellan provides instrumentation that is quite complementary to what Gemini offers, such as high-resolution optical spectroscopy; wide-field optical and infrared imaging; and adaptive optics at optical wavelengths. Beginning in 2016, Australian astronomers will also gain access to 45 nights per year on the two Keck Observatory 10 metre telescopes on Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Australian access to international facilities including Gemini, Magellan, and Keck is negotiated by Astronomy Australia Limited (AAL), with funding primarily from the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). Responsibility for managing the allocation process and supporting users is sub-contracted by AAL to the International Telescopes Support Office at the AAO.

Gemini Observatory

The Gemini Observatory is an international partnership. Originally seven countries (USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile) combined together to build and run two of the world's largest and most powerful telescopes: Gemini North (located on the extinct volcano Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii), and Gemini South (located at Cerro Pachon, in the Chilan Andes). The two telescopes are virtually identical, and together they provide astronomers coverage of the whole sky, north and south. Gemini North began doing science in 2000. Gemini South made its first science observations in the latter part of 2001. At the end of 2012 the United Kingdom withdrew from the Gemini partnership.
Australian Gemini Telescopes Image
The telescopes are named after the constellation Gemini, "The Twins" because there are two identical, twin telescopes. Giant modern telescopes such as Gemini North and Gemini South cost around A$100 million or more each. As such, they are too expensive for most universities or individual countries to own and operate. Instead, they are typically built and run by international consortia. Gemini has two offices, one in Hilo, Hawaii, the other in La Serena, Chile.

Astronomers and engineers from all these countries helped design and build the telescopes, and astronomers from all these countries get to use them. Each partner country has a national Gemini office which supports users in that country. The partner share of each country reflects how much they pay towards building and running the telescopes, and determines the share of the telescope time that astronomers from that country get.

In addition, 5% of the telescope time goes to the Director of the Gemini Observatory for Discretionary Time proposals, and 10% to the telescope hosts, in return for providing the telescopes their homes: the University of Hawaii for Gemini North, and Chile for Gemini South. Some telescope time is also reserved for engineering work, commissioning new instruments, and as a reward for instrument builders.

Membership in Gemini gave Australia not only access to one of the world's premier observing facilities, but also the opportunity to bid for the design and build of the instruments that sit at the back of the Gemini telescopes and record the signals from space. These instruments are crucial to the success of the observatory, and cost a large fraction of the total budget. Australian Gemini Schools ImageThe first Gemini instrument built in Australia was NIFS: the Near Infrared Integral Field Spectrograph, that was commissioned in October and November 2006. This remarkable multi-million dollar instrument was built at the Australian National University's Mt Stromlo Observatory. It was destroyed in the Jan 2003 bushfires, but was then rebuilt in partnership with Canberra firm Auspace. NIFS takes a spectrum of every part of an object at once, using adaptive optics to remove the blur caused by the Earth's atmosphere.

The second Australian Gemini instrument was GSAOI: the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager, which was also built at Mt Stromlo Observatory, and shipped to Gemini South where it was integrated with a new 5 laser adaptive optics system called GeMS. GSAOI+GeMS forms the world's most powerful wide field infrared adaptive optics system. The AAO and ANU, in partnership with the NRC-Herzberg institute in Canada, is currently building GHOST, a new high-resolution optical spectrograph to be installed on the Gemini South telescope in 2017.

Other benefits of Australian access to Gemini include the opportunity to provide Education and Public Outreach activities, including annual Australian Gemini School Astronomy Contests. From the 2013 contest we obtained the wonderful observation above of the face-on spiral galaxy IC5332, as chosen by Isobelle Teljega from St Margaret's Anglican School. In addition, every summer we send 2 or 3 top undergraduate students from Australia to spend 10 weeks working at the Gemini South Observatory in Chile, which is an incredible experience.

The Future

What's next? Australia's access to international facilities is in a state of flux, but the International Telescopes Support Office (ITSO, formerly AusGO, the Australian Gemini Office) hosted by the Australian Astronomical Observatory has the necessary expertise to support a wide range of similar instruments across many different telescopes worldwide. Australia is a founding partner in the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) under construction in Chile, which will have a mirror made up from 7 mirrors each the size of the Gemini mirrors, giving the equivalent light-gathering power of a single 25 metre mirror. When the GMT begins operations in the early- to mid-2020s, the AAO will help ensure that Australian astronomers are at the forefront of discovery, both by supporting its users and by building MANIFEST, a fibre-positioner system for GMT instruments.