Assistant Minister Zed Seselja has launched the $7 million TAIPAN instrument at Siding Spring Observatory in North-Western NSW. TAIPAN is installed on the fully refurbished UK Schmidt Telescope currently operated by the Australian Astronomical Observatory. A cutting-edge positioning system using mini-robots called “Starbugs”, TAIPAN will measure up to 2 million galaxies and 3 million stars to make new discoveries about dark energy, dark matter, and galaxy and star formation and evolution.
Today Assistant Minister for Science, Jobs and Innovation Senator the Hon Zed Seselja visited Siding Spring Observatory (near Coonabarabran, NSW) to inaugurate TAIPAN.
“The AAO is a world leader in developing game-changing new astronomical instrumentation. We’ll be able to do an enormous amount of science that was barely conceivable a few years ago, thanks to the Starbug fibre positioners that are the cornerstone of TAIPAN”, said Dr Kyler Kuehn, TAIPAN Project Scientist at the AAO.
TAIPAN is installed on the UK Schmidt Telescope (UKST), owned by the Australian National University (ANU) and managed by the AAO. The UKST has an aperture of 1.2 metres and a very wide-angle field of view. TAIPAN consists of a robot positioner operating over the 6-degree field of view of the UKST, moving 150 optical fibres simultaneously to align them with their target objects, with an accuracy of a few thousandths of a millimetre. TAIPAN includes a dedicated spectrograph, designed and built by the AAO, which splits the light captured by the Starbugs into its component colours.
The UKST was commissioned in 1973 as a survey telescope, carrying out the first deep photographic surveys of the southern skies. Between 2001 and 2013 the 6dF (6-degree Field) multi-fibre-optic technology was used to gather detailed information on 120,000 galaxies and half a million stars over the whole southern sky. The UKST was refurbished between 2014 and 2016 to allow remote operations and the installation of TAIPAN.
The TAIPAN fibre positioning system uses the AAO's novel “Starbug” technology, which enables repositioning of hundreds of fibres at once.
“The ability to move all the fibres simultaneously gives us an enormous time-saving over 6dF’s one-at-a-time approach,” says Prof Fred Watson of the Australian Astronomical Observatory. “Fibre reconfiguration comes down from an hour to two or three minutes – amazing!”
The TAIPAN instrument will be used to complete two new astronomical surveys, called the “Taipan galaxy survey” and the “FunnelWeb stellar survey”.
The Taipan galaxy survey will obtain high quality spectra for 2 million galaxies. This will be the most comprehensive spectroscopic survey of the Southern Hemisphere ever undertaken. The main goals of the Taipan galaxy survey are to measure the present-day expansion rate of the Universe to 1% precision, to make the most extensive map of the position and motions of galaxies in the Local Universe, and to understand the role of mass and environment in the evolution of the galaxies.
“The Taipan galaxy survey will determine both the age and size of the Universe with extraordinary precision. To do so, it will measure the position of 2 million galaxies and the velocities for 100,000 of those galaxies”, said Prof Matthew Colless, Director of the ANU Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics and co-leader of the Taipan galaxy survey.
“The survey will provide the benchmark for understanding galaxies in our local Universe,” says Prof Andrew Hopkins, AAO’s Head of Research and Outreach and co-leader of the Taipan galaxy survey. “We will provide unique insights into dark energy and dark matter that are only possible with a large area spectroscopic survey of this kind. This survey will be a touchstone for future projects with the largest telescopes in the world, and in space.”
The FunnelWeb stellar survey, led by astronomers at UNSW Sydney and the ANU, will create an ambitious new database of spectra for 3 million stars in its first 3 years of operation. It will deliver a detailed spectral library for millions of stars in the Southern Hemisphere. The survey will provide an input catalogue for future generations of searches for new planets. It will also enable new maps and a new understanding of the structure of our home, the Milky Way galaxy.
“The technology built into TAIPAN is revolutionary, because it allows all 150 Starbugs to independently move to new targets”, says Prof Chris Tinney, head of Exoplanetary Science at UNSW and co-leader of the FunnelWeb project. “This means we can reposition and observe another 150 stars roughly every 6 minutes. That means around 15,000 stars a night, or over a million stars a year. It’ll be the fastest survey of the stars of our Galaxy ever obtained!”
The Australian Government has invested $6.37 million over four years to bring TAIPAN to fruition, including the UKST refurbishment, the Starbug fibre positioner system, and the spectrograph. But the work has had a long gestation.
"TAIPAN represents the realisation of more than a decade of research and development by the team, since the Starbugs project inception in 2004. Work on this exciting technology continues, with a view to future astronomy instruments as well as possible industrial applications", said Dr Nuria Lorente, Senior Astronomy Instrumentation Software and Systems Engineer at the AAO.
The TAIPAN instrument is a developmental prototype for an even more powerful instrument under development called MANIFEST. When MANIFEST is installed in the mid-2020s on what will, at that time, be the largest telescope in the world – the Giant Magellan Telescope – it will enable future generations of surveys of the faintest stars and galaxies in the sky.