The Liverpool Telescope is a 2 metre diameter optical astronomical telescope, constructed especially for robotic use. The telescope is especially to study variable astronomical phenomena, sources which vary on timescales between seconds and years. These include variable stars, accretion disks around blackholes, neutron stars, white dwarf stars; quasars and active galactic nucleii; gravitational lenses, and moving targets like asteroids and comets. Most interesting, the telescope has a rapid reaction mode to study transient targets including novae, supernovae, and the optical counterparts of gamma-ray burst sources. These are the brightest and highest energy sources in the universe, and their brightness allows us to observe them even if they occur at great distances and high redshifts, provided that we can observe them very soon after they occur.
The telescope is operated by Liverpool John Moores University, but observing time is available to the UK and Spanish communities through their normal time allocation committees, and will be available to European astronomers through Opticon.
An audiovisual about the telescope is available here.
The Liverpool Telescope was begun as a joint project of Liverpool John Moores University, and the Royal Greenwich Observatory in 1996, with funding from the European Regional Development Fund and from the UK government through the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC). A new company, Telescope Technologies Limited, was set up in Birkenhead near Liverpool to build the telescope, and to seek contracts for other telescopes, so far this company has built a total of four more telescopes, all very similar to the Liverpool Telescope. The others are in India, Hawaii, Australia and China.
The telescope saw first light in July 2003, and began science operations in January 2004. The Robotic Control System was installed in April 2004, and since December 2004 it has been running with no observers at night for most nights.
The Liverpool Telescope is a 2.0 metre reflecting telescope with Ritchey-Chretien optics operated at the Cassegrain focus. The telescope is built to operate at optical and near infra-red wavelengths. The engineering of the telescope is similar to many of the other large telescopes at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, but what is unique it its mode of operation. it is normally operated with nobody in attendance, either remotely from Liverpool for the purposes of public observing sessions, or more often in robotic mode, when the programme of the telescope and what it is observing is entirely under the control of computer software. Planned observations are entered into a queue, and are chosen by the software at the best time for those observations to be done, allowing for the different requirements of different projects in terms of frequency of observations, the observing conditions under which the observations can be done (for example some can be done in moonlight and some cannot). Occasionally the programme will be interrupted by an important transient event, notified to the telescope by a space mission or another ground-based telescope, and the Liverpool Telescope will break off from its programme to observe the transient event, and then resume its normal programme afterwards. So the observation which is interrupted is not lost, but only slightly delayed.
There are two instruments at present, an optical CCD camera, and an Infra-Red camera. They are designed for measurements of the radiation output (photometry) at their respective wavelengths. The main purpose of the telescope is to study variability of this output, so these instruments are designed for rapid response as opposed to wide field of view.
Over the next two years the Liverpool Telescope will be equipped in addition with two spectrographs, again designed for rapid response. This will allow us to study the variation with time of the distribution of radiation intensity with wavelength, and from this we can measure the velocity and temperature of expanding shells of gas around exploding stars (Novae, Supernovae and Gamma ray Bursts), and accretion discs, which are disks of gas spiralling in to be swallowed by black holes in Quasars and Active galactic Nuclei).
The telescope is a major ground-based partner for the SWIFT satellite mission to discover Gamma Ray Bursts, and has already begun studying sources discovered by SWIFT. In the future it will collaborate with other space missions, especially those concentrating on high energy astrophysics (XEUS, GLAST and Constellation-X), to provide complementary optical and infra-red observations of sources those satellites discover. With similar small and medium sized telescopes around the world it will be involved in telescope networks, including the UK ROBONET project, to provide continuous monitoring and continuous coverage of potential transient events.
The Liverpool Telescope has already begun its primary tasks of monitoring the brightess of Novae, Supernovae and Gamma Ray Bursts. Scientists from Liverpool John Moores University are involved in this work, but there are also teams from the University of Manchester; Imperial College, London; Durham University; the University of Hertfordshire; the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia; and Ljubljana involved.
Although intended largely to be a major research instrument, the LT is also leading the way in education and public outreach. A fraction of the time on the telescope is set aside by JMU for use by schools and from this has grown the UK National Schools' Observatory (NSO) project (www.schoolsobservatory.org.uk).
The NSO has been developed with a dedicated team of teachers and is designed to reach as wide an audience as possible, with lots of support for younger pupils and less experienced teachers as well as the opportunity to take part in research projects for the more advanced users. In the first six months since the launch of the project in October 2004, nearly 2000 requests for observations have been processed, with more than 500 schools involved.
We are now looking forward to further development, with a wider range of observing programmes, more educational tools, improved connections with research and an international programme all in the pipeline.