Public Lectures for the Session 2000-2001 held in Room E7 of the Renold Building, UMIST.
Delivered to the Manchester Astronomical Society

15th March 2001

'The Liverpool Telescope Project'

Professor Mike Bode
Head of the Astrophysics Department, John Moore University, Liverpool

Prof. Bode introduced his subject with reference to astronomy on Merseyside going back to the time of Jeremiah Horrocks and the first observation of a transit of Venus in 1639. During the 19th century, astronomers such as William Lassell, Isaac Roberts and William Rutter Dawes contributed new astronomical discoveries. The Liverpool observatory was set up at Waterloo Docks in 1845 before transferring across the Mersey to Bidson Hill in 1864. Its job was to provide accurate astronomical transits and time signals with which to set ships chronometers. In 1881 the Liverpool Astronomical Society became the forerunner of provincial astronomical groups and spawned the British Astronomical Association in 1891. (From which the forerunner of the MAS evolved in 1892.)

In 1989, Mike Bode gave a 5 minute talk in which he described the inefficiencies of time allocation on big telescopes. Researchers were obliged to put forward their proposed observations for peer review and, if approved, might be allocated two or three nights on a big telescope. In practice, weather conditions, instrument availability and failure, resulted in inefficient use of telescope time. Airfare and accommodation overseas were additional costs. He was subsequently invited to join a panel to look at ways of improving telescope efficiency and the idea of using very flexible, robotic, or remotely controlled telescopes, was conceived. This had already won some favourites in the USA.

Funding was initially unavailable to buy a US robotic telescope, and as it turned out this was fortunate, the US technology was unreliable. But eventually, with EU funding readily available to regenerate hi-tech industries on Merseyside, Telescope Technologies Ltd was formed. Based in Birkenhead, TTI are now building the first large robotic telescopes in the UK, with potential sales all over the world. The prototype Liverpool Telescope is a 2m -Class, Richey-Chretien Cassegrain reflector mounted alt-azimuthly. It is due to be commissioned on La Palma later in 2001. Two similar instruments are also under construction, for India and one to be sited in Hawaii. The latter is one of two telescopes being privately financed for the sole use of UK schools. The second one will be sited in Australia.

The Liverpool telescopes have significant advantages over other large telescopes: They will operate from unmanned, low maintenance robotic observatories with clam shell roofs designed to minimise local 'seeing'. Operating costs are minimised, no running water on site, no observer dormitories, no toilets. The observatories will open automatically if weather permits. The telescopes can operate in the open in high winds that would close down conventional observatories. The telescopes move very rapidly from one object to another. Slew rates of 2 deg/second and pointing accuracies of < 1 arc second are typical. They can monitor a large range of targets quickly and accurately during the course of a night. They can study objects with any or all of a suite of five instruments attached to an instrument turret at the Cassegrain focus. The CCD camera can image objects down to 20th magnitude in an exposure time of little over one minute. This is ideal for monitoring variable stars and novae, which can be sampled repeatedly in time-flexible observing programmes. Many observations can be collected of these time dependent objects.

5% of the time allocated on the Liverpool Telescope will be for amateur use, via programmes funded by PPARC and supervised via the BAA.

The Liverpool telescopes will revolutionise time dependent observational astronomy in monitoring things that change in the heavens. The future for TTL and the proposed ROBONET world-wide distribution of six similar telescopes, allowing round the clock observations, is very exiting.

Synopsis by Kevin J. Kilburn (Secretary)


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