Wave: New instrument will probe the origin of the Milky Way

ONE PALMA, Spain – Scientists have supercharged one of Earth’s most powerful telescopes with new technology that will reveal how our galaxy formed in unprecedented detail.

The William Herschel Telescope (WHT) in La Palma, Spain, will be able to survey 1,000 stars per hour, until it catalogs a total of five million.

A super-fast mapping device attached to the WHT will analyze each star’s makeup and the speed at which it travels.

It will show how our galaxy was formed over billions of years.

Oxford University professor Gavin Dalton has spent more than a decade developing the device called ‘Weave’.

He told me he was “beyond excited” that he was ready to leave.

“It’s a great achievement on behalf of so many people to do this and it’s great to see it work,” he said. “The next step is the new adventure, it’s fantastic!”

The Weave is installed on WHT, which is located on top of a mountain on the Spanish Canary Islands of La Palma. The name WHT stands for Enhanced Area Velocity Explorer – and it does exactly that.

It has 80,000 different parts and is an engineering marvel.

WHT is indicated for each patch of sky, astronomers identify the positions of a thousand stars. Wave’s nimble robotic fingers then carefully place a fiber-optic – a light-transmitting tube – on each spot on a plate, pointing at its corresponding star.

These fibers are really small telescopes. Each one captures light from a star and transmits it to another device. This then splits it into an iridescent spectrum, which contains the mysteries of the star’s origin and history.

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All this is completed in just one hour. While this is underway, the fiber optics for the next thousand stars are positioned on the back side of the plate, which after the previous survey is completed flips over to analyze the next set of targets.

Our galaxy is a dense spiral vortex of up to 400 billion stars. But it started out as a relatively small collection of stars.

It evolved from successive mergers with other smaller galaxies over billions of years. Along with the addition of stars from the new galaxies that join us, each merger stirs things up so much that brand new stars are formed.

Weave is able to calculate the speed, direction, age and composition of each star it observes, essentially creating a motion picture of stars moving in the Milky Way. According to Professor Dalton, by extrapolating backwards, it will be possible to reconstruct the entire formation of the Milky Way in detail never before seen.

“We will be able to detect galaxies that have been absorbed because the Milky Way has been created over cosmic time – and see how each absorption triggers new star formation.”

Dr Mark Balcells, overall in charge of the WHT, told BBC News that he believes Weave will make a big difference in our understanding of how galaxies form.

“We’ve been hearing for decades that we’re in the golden age of astronomy – but the wait for the future is much more important.

“Weave is going to answer questions that astronomers have been trying to answer for decades such as how many pieces come together to form one large galaxy and how many galaxies united to form the Milky Way?”

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Dr. Cecilia Farina, an instrumentation specialist on the project, said she believes Veeve will make astronomical history.

“There are a lot of things we’re going to find that we didn’t expect,” she said. “Because the universe is full of wonder.”

You can see Weave and other new telescopes in action in a short film, The Cosmic Hunters, on BBC iPlayer. – BBC

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