New Robotic Telescope

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


The New Robotic Telescope (NRT) project aims to build the world's largest and fastest responding robotic telescope. It is a collaboration between astronomers and engineers in the UK, Spain and China and combines the expertise of the existing Liverpool Telescope (LT) in robotisation with that of the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) in segmented telescope mirrors, which are lighter weight than traditional mirrors and so easier to move around the sky quickly. Overall NRT will have both 4 times the sensitivity (light collecting area) and 4x quicker response time (slew speed between targets) than the LT.

A robotic observatory is able to automatically and autonomously observe the Universe - this is achieved using an Artificial Intelligence system that selects the next target in real-time based upon scientific criteria and predicted environmental conditions as well as a self-healing software and hardware systems that adapt to faults and autorecover performance. Robotic telescopes can execute science that is impossible with conventionally (human) operated telescopes such as regular monitoring over a prolonged period and responding quickly (within seconds) and without human intervention to new astrophysical events. In this way, robotic observatories can fulfill the science requests of many (>100) different users in a single night compared to the conventional one user per night operating model.

NRT will give UK astronomers the opportunity to lead a broad base of science areas, especially by creating world-class capabilities for understanding the physics of transient objects detected by new survey telescopes. The next decade will see the commissioning of many such new international projects that will open windows on the time variable universe. They will search wider areas of the sky than has ever been possible and find new classes of transients using techniques such as radio waves, high-energy gamma rays, particles and gravitational waves. These 'discovery' facilities are massive ~£1bn scale projects involving the collaboration of many countries, many of which the UK has already invested in. However, without NRT spectroscopic follow-up to make a detailed analysis of the astrophysics of the new discoveries, much of their potential will be lost.

Our central scientific challenge is therefore to develop the world's largest robotic telescope which can rapidly and automatically respond to these new discoveries and make the detailed observations necessary to deliver UK leadership of their scientific exploitation, e.g.

(i) Ultra-rapid (<30s) spectroscopic and polarimetric exploitation of rapidly fading sources discovered by space-based alert telescopes (e.g. SVOM, Fermi, Einstein Probe), the electro-magnetic counterparts of gravitational waves (GW) (aLIGO/Virgo) and neutrino (IceCUBE/ANTARES) sources and new radio transients (e.g. LOFAR/SUPERB).

(ii) Rapid (<1 hr) spectroscopic and polarimetric observations of discoveries made by ground-based survey telescopes (e.g. VRO, ZTF), such as shock-breakout supernovae and recurrent Novae (proposed supernova progenitors).

(iii) Timely (<24 hrs) and time resolved spectroscopy of the evolution of a wide variety of sources detected by ground- and space-based facilities, including galactic transients such as out-bursting binary X-ray transients and eruptive young stellar objects detected by VISTA/Pan-STARRS/VRO, and solar system objects.

(iv) quasi-simultaneous (>24 hrs) spectroscopic and polarimetric long-term and intensive monitoring of variable sources such as Blazars (e.g. with Fermi, CTA) and changing look Active Galaxies.

NRT will be co-located on La Palma (one of the best observing sites in the world) with the LT (which will transition to a wide field support and greater public outreach and education role). It will be operated as a national facility, with access to all UK professional astronomers as well as to astronomers in our partner countries.


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