The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope
The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is one of two telescopes
operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre, the other being the
Maxwell Telescope (JCMT).
UKIRT on Mauna Kea.
UKIRT sees the universe with infrared light, the invisible heat radiation
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 telescope have
allowed UKIRT to take full advantage of the excellent conditions on Mauna
UKIRT detects its light with a suite of advanced instruments, including
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
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 terms. The
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 a glass
prism. Astronomers recombine these spectra to get a three-dimensional view of
the interactions between stars, cosmic dust and gas in complex objects like
The UIST image slicer.
Shortly after UIST started observations it was trained upon the most distant
quasar known, about 13 billion light years from Earth. Quasars are
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 their extreme
brightness makes them visible at great distances. By looking at gas swirling
around the quasar's core,
were able to 'weigh' this black hole at
the edge of the universe. It has the mass of three billion Suns!
UKIRT also studies
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 has
significantly advanced our understanding of them over the last few years.
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 of UKIDSS).
UKIRT is funded by the United Kingdom. It was opened in October 1979.
You can find some more technical information in
article about UKIRT.