What’s a super-fast robotic telescope doing among Bill Allen’s sauvignon blanc vines in Blenheim? Exploring the early Universe!
The BOOTES-3 telescope has been purpose-built to observe gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) which signal extremely high-energy explosions—the most violent events in the Universe. The primary candidates for the longer versions of these phenomena are hypernovae—exceptionally large stars that collapse into black holes, releasing energetic jets of plasma in their death throes. This class of massive star is believed to have dominated the Universe around 200 million years after the Big Bang, and studying GRBs provides a window into this early epoch.
Which is all well and good, but these are ephemeral events—blink and you miss them. In order to study what happens during a burst you need a telescope with super-fast reaction time. Remote spacecraft, like NASA’s Fermi, detect the first signals of GRBs and fire approximate positional information down to Earth. Using these data, the BOOTES-3 telescope swings into position in seconds to observe the transient optical flash (or emission) that occurs simultaneously with the initial burst of gamma-rays, thus pinpointing the GRB for larger (slower) telescopes to observe its afterglow.
BOOTES-3 is part of a network headed by Alberto Castro of the In- stitute for Astrophysics of Andalucía, and is the result of a collaboration that involves Stardome Observatory, Massey University and the Universities of Auckland and Canterbury. Locating the third telescope of this Spanish series under clear Blenheim skies greatly enhances the programme’s existing terrestrial coverage. And it gives New Zealand scientists an opportunity to peer deep through space, perhaps to the birth of the Cosmos.