Liverpool John Moores University gains insight in astrophysics with scientific cameras

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A trio of 'off-the-shelf' Andor scientific cameras has made over one billion measurements of the most luminous objects in the universe to help Liverpool John Moores University stay at the forefront of time domain astrophysics. The three ultrasensitive iKon-M DU934 cameras are at the heart of the University's SkyCamA, SkyCamT and SkyCamZ wide-field STILT telescopes and have run continuously for more than five years.

SkycamA is an all-sky camera used in basic weather monitoring and is capable of detecting objects about as faint as the naked eye can observe. SkycamT was designed to detect objects 100 times fainter than the naked eye can see while the third camera in SkyCamZ can distinguish objects more than 100 times fainter than that. However, almost all cameras capable of this level of quantum efficiency require vacuum pump cooling and the team was very concerned about reliability, especially as the telescopes are stationed 2,000 miles away at the top of a mountain in La Palma, the Canary Islands.

"We could not afford to fly out every week to fix problems so the combination of industry-leading thermoelectric cooling down to -100°C, very high sensitivity, negligible dark current and low noise performance offered by the Andor iKon-M DU934 was ideal," says Neil Mawson, from the Astrophysics Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University. "The Andor cameras have performed faultlessly. What's more, the availability of a Linux SDK meant we could integrate the camera into our existing software systems with minimal effort."

Since the STILT (Small Telescopes Installed at the Liverpool Telescope) system was installed, over 1 billion measurements of the brightness and positions of over 25 million objects have been made and the Liverpool team is using data mining techniques to identify new, previously undiscovered objects, including variable stars, galaxies, exoplanets and transient phenomena. They have also examined the optical brightness changes in the jets emerging from 'Blazars', the most luminous objects in the universe, which is allowing them to start to understand how the jet base twists and changes over periods of a few months.

The STILT system has also provided complementary observations of a number of transient phenomena including gamma ray bursts (GRB), supernovae and novae (some of the most violent and energetic events in the universe). Some of the observations captured by the system actually provide earlier observations than the main telescope due to their wide fields of view detecting the events before the main telescope was instructed to observe them.

"With the ever increasing focus on understanding the extreme physics involved in stellar phenomena, such as Supernovae, exploration of the Time Domain has become a major new frontier in astrophysics," says Colin Duncan of Andor. "Liverpool John Moores University is one of the pioneers in this field and we are proud that their faith in the design and stability of the iKon-M has been repaid.

Andor's iKon-M 934 series cameras are designed to offer the ultimate in high-sensitivity, low noise performance, ideal for demanding imaging applications. These cameras are equipped with a high-resolution, 1024x1024 pixel back-illuminated and anti-reflection coated detector with a pixel size of 13μm. Boasting up to 95% QEmax, high dynamic range and exceptionally low readout noise, the new Dual AR coating extends the QE performance significantly across the UV/visible region of the spectrum for the broadest possible spectral coverage from one sensor.