STFC Astronomer Pens Legacy for UK's Largest Infrared Telescope

11 May 2016

John Davies

John Davies atop Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii
(Credit: STFC)

A newly published book celebrates the success story of The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), an astronomical instrument that pushed back the frontiers of astronomy from atop the dormant volcano Mauna Kea, on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In his book Dr John K. Davies, a staff astronomer at STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, describes how a telescope conceived as a cheap and cheerful flux collector, one that sacrifices some accuracy of detail for large aperture, re-invented itself each decade to remain at the forefront of infrared astronomy for more than 30 years.

“When I first learned about the existence of UKIRT at a lecture in 1980 it left such an impact on me, that I changed my career in order to become an astronomer,” said Davies. “A decade later, I was fortunate enough to be working at this very special place with some truly remarkable people.”

In the 1970s the study of infrared astronomy was brand new and beginning to gain traction leading to the concept of UKIRT – a low cost telescope with a lightweight mirror that would capture mediocre images. But during UKIRT’s construction in 1975, a snap decision was made to polish the mirror to a higher standard. The gamble paid off for UKIRT, and achieved its first light in October 1979. With a superb polished mirror the telescope was able to collect observations and images less affected by atmospheric conditions; specifically at ‘invisible’ or infrared wavelengths.

“From the beginning of its operations, UKIRT pushed back the frontiers of astronomy in several areas,” Davies explains. “The telescope nearly established a monopoly in studies of interstellar hydrogen gas near star forming regions and probing the dark clouds in which stars are born.”

Since the nineties well through the millennium, UKIRT proved to be an innovative telescope. By taking advantage of image performance improvements and significant software upgrades the telescope’s boundaries were limitless. Upgrades refined the user interface, database mechanism, and telescope process allowing for UKIRT to methodically schedule and draw specific observations tailored to weather conditions and scientific priorities.

Over its life UKIRT evolved from an almost ‘do-it-yourself’ light bucket operated by half a dozen astronomers armed with voltmeters and screwdrivers to a computer controlled discovery machine steered by a single person from a control room 70 kilometres away. By studying everything between Earth grazing asteroids and galaxies close to the edge of the Universe, the telescope embedded itself into the international astronomy scene.

Book cover

Book cover
(Credit: Springer International Publishing Switzerland)

Nevertheless, as astronomical science evolves so does the technology. In 2012, a tough decision was made to withdraw UK operations at UKIRT to focus on other new and innovative opportunities, such as the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). Through the E-ELT telescope, astronomers will have a better understanding of the Universe, the effects of dark matter and energy and planets outside of the solar system.

“When it became clear that UKIRT’s role in UK astronomy was drawing to a close, I felt compelled to tell this story,” recalls Davies. “UKIRT’s legacy will continue to live on in the hearts and minds of two generations of British astronomers.”

Are you curious to learn more about UKIRT’s journey observing infrared astronomy? If so, look no further than Davies book, The Life Story of an Infrared Telescope, which explores the telescope’s creation, capabilities and culture.

STFC infrared astronomy focus is now on VISTA, the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, which is operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The 4m telescope is dedicated to wide field infrared surveys. VISTA was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 universities in the United Kingdom, led by Queen Mary, University of London. Project management for the telescope design and construction was undertaken by STFC’s UK Astronomy Centre. The telescope was an 'in-kind' deliverable by the UK as part of its joining fee for ESO.

VISTA is undertaking six huge surveys focused on different astronomical problems, five of which are led by UK scientists. Some study small patches of sky for long periods to detect extremely faint objects and others survey the entire southern sky. The observations will create vast new data collections that will support research in many astronomical projects ranging from studies of small bodies in our own Solar System out to cosmological investigations of the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

Find out more about STFC’s astronomy and space science programs.


John Davies is staff astronomer at STFC’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) in Edinburgh. Before that he was a support astronomer for the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii. He is helping to organize a European astronomy Network called OPTICON and continues to undertake research studying comets and asteroids. Over the years he has also been involved in building and operating astronomical satellites, flight testing fighter aeroplanes and doing chemistry.

UKIRT is one of the world’s largest telescopes devoted to infrared astronomy. Its high quality 3.8 metre mirror views the Universe with infrared light - the invisible heat radiation beyond red at the edge of a rainbow. The University of Hawaii assumed ownership of the UKIRT on Mauna Kea in October 2014.

STFC's Astronomy and Space Science programme provides support for a wide range of facilities, research groups and individuals in order to investigate some of the highest priority questions in astrophysics, cosmology and solar system science. Astronomers and space scientists at Universities around the UK are some of the world’s best, working on answers to these and other questions identified in our science roadmap.

STFC's astronomy and space science programme is delivered through grant funding for research activities, and also through support of technical activities at STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and RAL Space at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.


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