Liverpool Telescope Operations 2020-2023

Lead Research Organisation: Liverpool John Moores University
Department Name: Astrophysics Research Institute


The Liverpool Telescope (LT ) ( is the world's largest and most sophisticated (in terms of range of science programmes, flexibility of scheduling, and sophistication of instrumentation) robotic telescope with a dual role to carry out internationally competitive research and deliver the key observing resource to the National Schools Observatory. The NSO offers school children near-immediate access to a world-class observatory. Since its launch in 2004, this has led to over 160,000 observing requests from over 4,000 schools. The NSO currently works with over 4000 teachers throughout the UK and Ireland. At the core of the NSO is the website which provides support material for a range of subjects and receives over 1.5 million hits each year.

Since operations began in 2004, LT has specialised in delivering high impact results in time domain astrophysics. Indeed, the observatory is unique in actively encouraging rapid-response and difficult-to-schedule monitoring projects from the U.K. and Spanish communities. Refereed publications that include LT data typically average 46 citations/paper, three time the average for all astronomy papers; to date 22 such papers have appeared in the high-profile journals Nature or Science, these having on average 166 citations/paper.

The telescope has high impact science programmes in five key areas of time domain astrophysics:

* Spectroscopy simultaneous with in-situ spacecraft measurements (e.g. ESA Rosetta and NASA New Horizons)
* Exoplanet Characterization
* Cataclysmic Variables, Novae and Supernovae
* Gravitational Wave and Gamma Ray Burst counterparts
* Active Galactic Nuclei

From the outset, the goal has been to provide a wide variety of instrumentation to cater for the broad interests of the LJMU and U.K./Spanish communities. Currently, optical photometry, spectroscopy and polarimetry and infrared photometry are offered with instruments and a software environment that are capable of sampling timescales from <1 second to >10 years. A continuous programme of instrument upgrades has been aggressively pursued throughout the last decade. This has kept the facility competitive and ensures its position at the forefront of time domain astronomy for at least the next five years when we plan to transition to a joint operations model with a new 4m robotic telescope.

This application is for an STFC contribution over the period 2020-2023 to the funding for the maintenance and operation of the Liverpool Telescope, and hence the continuation of its role as a major resource both for the LJMU Astrophysics Research Institute and the wider UK community.

Planned Impact

LT has a long tradition of strong industrial engagement. The initial build of the telescope was based around the establishment of a spinout company (TTL, Telescope Technologies Ltd) which was subsequently sold in 2005 to an ex-Google employee to build a global network of small (0.4 and 1 metre) robotic telescopes.

Knowledge Transfer is strongly encouraged at all levels within the University, and the ARI is pro-active in supporting staff members who seek out external partnerships. Recent projects include:

* Working with the LJMU Ecology group on a GCRF and Newton funded project to exploit imaging techniques developed in astronomy to identify animals and humans in aerial thermal-imaging video footage, overcoming a fundamental bottleneck in monitoring animal populations around the globe.

* We have undertaken a design study with QINETIQ on the feasibility of a non-GPS based geo-location device based on astronomical principles

* We have signed a contract with SAAO to build a modified version of our SPRAT spectrograph for their new 1-m Leseidi robotic telescope

* We have used an Innovate UK voucher to carry out a feasibility study on the potential of a small CubeSat instrument (based on the LOTUS design) to identify potential targets for asteroid mining and are working with a UK company to develop the business case and apply for further funding to the UK Space Agency and UK Satellite Catapult.

Skills and knowledge transfer are furthered by the direct involvement of students (undergraduate and postgraduate) in development projects. The LT team has consistently included undergraduate, postgraduate and PhD students in instrument and software design and development with these projects forming the basis of several PhD theses. Most of these students have left academic research for wider industry.

LT has also had success in licensing software and hardware developed for the telescope to the Faulkes/LCOGT organization. License income of £160k plus telescope time worth an additional £180k on the LCO telescopes has been received by LJMU from this activity.

LT is a focus for a significant fraction of the extensive Public Engagement programme at ARI. As well as many talks and workshops to schools and the general public the LT is also key to the success of a suite of Distance Learning courses in Astronomy that attract around 200 students a year, many of whom have little or no prior experience of Higher Education.

LT is the key resource of the National Schools Observatory, which has delivered over 150,000 unique observations to over 4,000 UK and Irish schools and over 1,500,000 website hits/year. NSO taps into natural astronomy interest in children to further the pupil's knowledge of science and mathematics, while at the same time improve their computer literacy and communications skills, strengthen critical thinking and give experience of the real-world application of science and technology. This is done primarily by providing an interface whereby schoolchildren and their teachers throughout the UK and Ireland can request their own observations from the LT, allowing them to work alongside the research users of the telescope and gain an insight into modern science and the technology that underpins it.

Over the past 3 years LT has taken significant advantage in the opportunities for international engagement afforded by Newton and GCRF funding. We have developed a number of international, multi-disciplinary partnerships grants with both academic and industrial impact under three broad themes (Thailand, Indonesia and Astro-Ecology)

Future planned activities include:

* New Engagements with the Liverpool Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and Knowledge Quarter

* Greater Engagement with Local Industry via LCR4.0

* Greater Engagement with ESA and the UK Space Catapult

* Greater Engagement with the Newton and GCRF funding opportunities


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