This is an artist’s recreation of a forming star.
University of Florida astronomers are testing—at the world’s largest telescope—a
new infrared camera that will allow researchers to look for planets outside our
own solar system and better explore hidden black holes at the centers of
The commissioning of CanariCam, a high-tech, heat-sensitive
camera, started in late June (2011) at the site of the biggest optical-infrared
telescope in the world. Gran Telescopio Canarias, or Grantecan, is located at
7,438 foot-altitude on the island of La Palma, in Spain’s
Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.
CanariCam, created by a team of astronomers and engineers
led by UF astronomy professor Charles Telesco, had a cost of $3.2 million,
financed by the Spanish government, and will allow researchers to peer through
obscuring interstellar dust with unprecedented accuracy.
The process of installing an instrument on a telescope and
verifying the full functionality of all its operational modes isn’t an easy
“Any frontline research instrument is one of a kind. In
order to be at the forefront of science, you can’t do what others have done
already. You must incorporate the newest materials and technologies and push
them further than anybody has done before,” Telesco says.
Despite the challenges, more than 50% of the capabilities of
CanariCam have been fully tested on the telescope and should be finished next
month. It will then be ready for use by the general scientific community
starting in March 2012.
Internationally known for its expertise in designing,
building and using state-of-the-art astronomical instrumentation on some of the
world’s largest telescopes, the University
of Florida is a 5%
partner in the Grantecan telescope, also known as the GTC, which was
inaugurated in 2009. UF is developing and using instruments such as CanariCam
to maximize the telescope’s scientific productivity for all its users. In
return, the Florida
team has access to the telescope for its own projects.
“Currently there are only three infrared instruments
installed on 8 m to 10 m class telescopes in the world. The unique
specifications of CanariCam, combined with the mighty 10.4 m mirror of the GTC,
will be a cutting-edge scientific tool,” Telesco says.
Some bodies or regions of the universe do not emit visible
light but infrared radiation, which is detected by CanariCam. This capability
will spearhead research exploring planets outside our solar system and regions
where planets and stars are forming. Also, the fact that infrared radiation can
pierce easily cosmic dust clouds means that CanariCam would be able to see
objects that are totally obscured at visible wavelengths.