The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope
The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is one of two
operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, the other being the James
Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT). UKIRT is currently
in a transitional phase towards new ownership.
UKIRT on Mauna Kea.
UKIRT sees the universe with infrared light, the invisible heat
that lies beyond red at the edge of a rainbow. It was originally
designed as a
relatively simple 'light collector', but its 3.8-meter diameter
mirror is of
extremely high quality. Advanced upgrades to the rest of the
allowed UKIRT to take full advantage of the excellent conditions
UKIRT detects its light with a suite of advanced instruments,
WFCAM (the Wide-Field Camera) and UIST (the UKIRT Imager
Spectrometer). These 'workhorse' instruments are capable of
performing the three main types of infrared observations:
imaging, spectroscopy, and polarimetry.
UIST was built at the Astronomy Technology Centre in
Edinburgh, Scotland. On
its first night at UKIRT it was used to map part of
the Omega Nebula, a gas cloud where new stars are forming.
Located 5000 light
years from Earth, the nebula is a near neighbor in astronomical
intense ultraviolet radiation from young, hot stars blasts the
atoms in clouds
of interstellar gas, making them glow brightly.
UIST image of Omega Nebula.
UIST also has a revolutionary 'image slicer', which slices the
light from an
astronomical target into thin sections. Each slice is then
spread out to make
a spectrum, like the rainbows produced when light passes through
prism. Astronomers recombine these spectra to get a
three-dimensional view of
the interactions between stars, cosmic dust and gas in complex
The UIST image slicer.
Shortly after UIST started observations it was trained upon the
quasar known, about 13 billion light years from Earth. Quasars
exceptionally luminous galaxies, far brighter than can be
explained by normal
starlight. They are powered by the release of gravitational
energy as matter
is pulled toward a supermassive black hole at their centres, and
brightness makes them visible at great distances. By looking at
around the quasar's core, scientists
were able to 'weigh' this black hole at
the edge of the universe. It has the mass of three billion Suns!
UKIRT also studies brown
dwarfs, mysterious objects sometimes referred to as
'failed stars'. They are more massive than gas giant planets
like Jupiter, but
are not quite massive enough to shine like normal stars. UKIRT
significantly advanced our understanding of them over the last
WFCAM on UKIRT.
Many such advances in recent years have been made with the
newer instrument, WFCAM.
WFCAM covers two tenths of a square degree of sky in a single
exposure, allowing UKIRT to carry out its current extrememly
ambitious survey of the infrared
sky — the UKIRT Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS).
Below are two images from UKIDSS.
Galactic Plane Survey Whole-Plane Mosaic (taken with WFCAM on
UKIRT as part of UKIDSS).
The Sombrero Galaxy (M104, taken with WFCAM on UKIRT as part
UKIRT was opened in October 1979.
You can find some more technical information in an
older article about UKIRT.