NSF Awards Grant to Gemini Observatory

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The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded the Gemini Observatory a multi-million-dollar award to enhance its role in the era of multimessenger astronomy and future facilities such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-m telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope (Gemini North) is located on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, and the other telescope is on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South). Together, the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky.

One element of the award funds major software and operational upgrades to improve capabilities at both Gemini telescopes for extremely rapid follow-up studies of transient sources. The other key aspect is a state-of-the-art multiconjugate adaptive optics (AO) system for wide-field, high-resolution imaging at the Gemini North telescope. Additionally, the award supports international education and outreach activities focusing on the public understanding of multimessenger astronomy as well as educational resources and programming for Gemini’s host communities in Hawaii and Chile. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large, relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and IR radiation from space.

“With this funding, Gemini will significantly advance multimessenger and time-domain, or transient-source, astronomy,” said Anne Kinney, head of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Division at NSF. “We’ve witnessed a surge of astronomical discoveries in areas such as gravitational waves, exotic varieties of stellar explosions, and collisions within our own solar system where a full understanding depends critically upon rapid characterization of the discoveries using ground-based facilities like Gemini.”

Multimessenger astronomy refers to the study of astronomical objects using a combination of electromagnetic radiation, high-energy particles, and gravitational waves. The NSF supports efforts to study the universe using all three of these windows, with the Gemini Observatory focusing on optical and IR light. The new funding will strengthen Gemini’s ability to target a wide range of transient phenomena and study them in exquisite detail.

The award will fund the development of an advanced multiconjugate AO system for high-resolution studies in the spatial domain. This system will use a laser to produce a constellation of artificial guide stars to help correct for distortions caused by the atmosphere above the Gemini North telescope. By monitoring these laser-produced stars, the system can correct for the effects of atmospheric blurring by rapidly applying complementary distortions using specialized deformable mirrors. The use of multiple artificial stars allows the system to produce exquisitely sharp images at IR wavelengths over a much wider area than is possible with conventional AO systems that use only a single laser or bright star.

Gemini is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

Published: November 2018
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