4 mins read 14 Apr 2021

Spirit 6 captures stunning first light images

Stunning light images from Western Australia’s ICRAR new SPIRIT 6 telescope give a taste of the professional capability now available to students and researchers.

The Horsehead Nebula taken by Paul Luckas while testing the new SPIRIT 6 telescope, processed by Colin Eldridge.

The International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) has added an impressive new telescope to their SPIRIT program. The new SPIRIT 6 telescope gives students and researchers from any school in Western Australia access to the same tools professional astronomers use, via a web browser. The students and researchers can drive the telescope remotely using the online tools to capture images of celestial objects in real-time. Scheduling tools allow images to be captured at specific times during the night and are available for the students to view in the morning. 

Installed at ICRAR’s Mardella Observatory, the new telescope, SPIRIT 6,  has already delivered amazing light images taken during the testing phase by Program Manager Paul Luckas and processed by telescope donor Colin Eldridge. 

The telescope, which will remain in BETA testing for the next couple of months, is the sixth and largest of the SPIRIT telescopes. The telescope is part of the SPIRIT program hosted by ICRAR, a joint venture between Curtin University (Curtin) and The University of Western Australia (UWA), with funding support from the State Government of Western Australia.

SPIRIT 6 has a one-metre mirror and offers a 28 arc minute field of view and default resolution of 0.83 arc seconds per pixel. It is equipped with a filter wheel containing Clear, Red, Green, Blue, Ha (5nm), B and V filters to enable a wide range of imaging techniques.

About SPIRIT 6

Colin Eldridge and Paul Luckas installing the secondary mirror in the new SPIRIT 6 telescope at Mardella observatory. Credit: ICRAR.

SPIRIT 6 is a 1m Planewave CDK1000 telescope installed at ICRAR’s Mardella Observatory in December 2020. The telescope has all daily operations fully automated, including CCD Camera initialisation (cooling), pre-dusk dome opening, and pre-dawn dome closing procedures.

SPIRIT 6 operates in scheduled mode, with access available throughout the year to students and researchers. Users can schedule image requests and monitor operations via a web interface. The interface also has access to catalogue databases for Messier, NGC, PGC and IC objects as well as the major planets by name. 

Access to these catalogue databases enables novice users to specify targets without knowledge of the celestial coordinates system. Likewise, the system calculates minor planet ephemerides at the time of imaging for numbered minor planets. For all other targets, celestial coordinates can be specified directly within the interface.

Paul Luckas, SPIRIT Program Manager, explained how the SPIRIT 6 will extend the SPIRIT telescope family for students and researchers. 

“From an imaging-only perspective, the 1m has a relatively modest field of view (half a degree) and a very long focal length (6m). This coupled with the light gathering ability of a 1m mirror makes it ideal for targeting objects that are beyond the limits of the smaller SPIRIT telescopes,” Paul said.

“Of those, galaxies are one obvious choice. Students no longer need to worry too much about which galaxies are within the grasp of SPIRIT, as pretty much all will reveal themselves, even with an exposure length of a couple of minutes. The focal length will show them quite impressively in the field, and the light gathering of the 1m mirror will reveal good detail.

“The same can be said of any smaller targets, such as planetary nebulae. These are ideal objects for the 1m given the small angular size. Again, the long focal length and large mirror are the key.

“For standard photometric oriented research, we can go a lot deeper in shorter exposures. I can’t quantify this (in terms of limiting magnitude), but ‘thousands’ of more research targets are now accessible. And, of course, an echelle spectrograph (due for completion in late 2021) will be the obvious game-changer for research, as well as teaching.”

Spiral galaxy, taken by Paul Luckas while testing the new SPIRIT 6 telescope, processed by Colin Eldridge.

Find out more about the SPIRIT initiative