One of the most powerful telescopes on Earth has been supercharged with new technology that will reveal the formation of our galaxy in unparalleled detail.
The William Herschel Telescope (WHT) near La Palma, Spain will be able to catalog five million stars at a rate of one thousand per hour.
A super-fast mapping gadget connected to WHT will analyze the composition and velocity of each star. It will demonstrate how the Milky Way galaxy evolved over billions of years. Prof. Gavin Dalton of Oxford University has spent over a decade creating the ‘Weave’ instrument. He told me that he was “very ecstatic” that it is now ready to go. “This is a terrific accomplishment by a large number of people, and it’s great that it’s functioning,” he said. “The following stage is a brand-new journey, and it’s fantastic!”
Weave has been installed on the WHT, which sits atop a mountain on La Palma, one of the Spanish Canary Islands. Its moniker, WHT Enhanced Area Velocity Explorer, accurately describes its function. It consists of eighty thousand individual parts and is a feat of engineering.
One thousand star locations are determined for each area of sky where the WHT is aimed. The dexterous robotic fingers of Weave then accurately position a fiber-optic – a light-emitting tube – on each location on a plate, pointing towards the matching star.
These fibers function as miniature telescopes. Each one channels the light from a single star to another instrument. This then separates it into a rainbow spectrum, which contains the origin and history of the star.
All of this is accomplished within an hour. During this time, the fiber optics for the next thousand stars are placed on the reverse side of the plate, which flips over to analyze the next set of targets after the current survey is complete.
Our galaxy contains as many as 400 billion billion stars. However, it began as a rather modest group of stars.
Over billions of years, it developed from serial mergers with other tiny galaxies. In addition to the addition of stars from newly-joined galaxies, each merger generates enough disruption to spur the production of new stars.
Weave is able to determine the speed, direction, age, and chemical makeup of each star it detects, basically generating a moving picture of the Milky Way’s stars. Prof. Dalton claims that by extrapolating backwards, it will be possible to reconstruct the Milky Way’s creation in previously unseen detail.
“We’ll be able to follow the galaxies that have been absorbed as the Milky Way has grown throughout cosmic time, and see how each absorption promotes the birth of new stars,” he said.
Dr. Marc Balcells, who is in charge of the WHT as a whole, told BBC News that he felt Weave will cause a significant shift in our understanding of how galaxies are formed.
“We have heard for decades that we are living in a golden age of astronomy, but what lies ahead is far more significant.
“Weave will answer issues that astronomers have been attempting to answer for decades, such as how many parts make up a large galaxy and how many galaxies came together to form the Milky Way.”
The instrumentation specialist on the project, Dr. Cecilia Farina, believes that Weave will make astronomical history. She stated, “We are going to find a vast number of things that we did not anticipate.” Because the universe is full of unexpected occurrences.