Mayall telescope gets ready for the largest 3D map of the universe

The Mayall Telescope © NOAO

The Mayall Telescope © NOAO

The 45-year-old Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope, is temporarily closing for the installation of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI), which will allow it to build the largest 3D map of the universe, which could help to solve the mystery of how dark energy drives the accelerating expansion of the universe. EPFL is full partner of the DESI project through key contributions to its unique fiber positioner robotic system.

The Mayall Telescope is housed in the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) in Arizona (US) and operated by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Named after US astronomer and KPNO director Nicholas U. Mayall (1906-1993), it is a four-meter reflector telescope built at an altitude of 2120 meters, and has been operating since 1973.

Since then, the Mayal Telescope has contributed to many discoveries in astrophysics, including dark energy and the role of dark matter in the universe. Equipped with with a wide field imager camera, the CCD Mosaic, the Mayall produces color pictures of astronomical objects such as Messier 101 but also wide field observations that will help to map structure of the universe.

The Mayall will be temporarily closed to begin what is described as "the largest overhaul" in its history, preparing the stage for the installation of the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI). The work involves more than 465 researchers from about 71 institutions, and according to KPNO Director Lori Allen, the entire top end of the telescope - which weighs as much as a school bus and houses the telescope’s secondary mirror and a large digital camera - will be removed with a crane and replaced with DESI instruments. 

Once installed, the DESI will begin a five-year observation run to provide new insights about the universe’s expansion and large-scale structure. In addition, it will also help to set limits on theories related to gravity and the formative stages of the universe, perhaps even providing new mass measurements for a variety of neutrinos. 

EPFL scientists have contributed to the DESI project through the development of the targeting strategy of the DESI survey, as well as through the development of the robotic fiber positionner system. The latter work as been conducted as part of the "astrobots" group, which includes EPFL's Laboratory of Astrophysics (LASTRO)Laboratory of Robotic Systems (LSRO) and the Coordination & Interaction Systems Group (REACT). EPFL and the Swiss National Science Foundation have contributed almost 1 million CHF to the DESI project, and the scientists are standing by to process the enormous amount of data that will be coming in.

“The focal plane of the Mayall telescope will be equipped with a fully automated robotic fiber positioner system co-developed by the Berkeley Lab, the University of Michigan, and EPFL. This high-precision system will place 5’000 optical fibers to 5-micron accuracy within less than one minute,” says LASTRO director Jean-Paul Kneib.

Read the full press release here (Berkeley Lab).