Imagine an extremely large optical telescope fitted with detectors that can selectively collect light from a particular section of the telescope’s focal plane. Using revolutionary robotic technology called Starbugs, the detector will reconfigure itself in real time to collect from any particular area of the image, and will feed the data into any analytical instrument.
That’s exactly what Matthew Colless and his team at the Australian Astronomical Observatory have in mind with the development of MANIFEST (the many-instrument fibre system)—which make use of the special photonic technologies developed by Joss Bland-Hawthorn and his team at the University of Sydney.
“MANIFEST will allow you to look at the whole of the focal plane, but only collect information from the bits you care about, and not all the boring bits of sky in between,” says Matthew. Matthew and his co-workers hope that the robotic fibre optic system will be fitted to one of the world’s most advanced optical telescopes, the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile.
The Starbugs technology literally drives the optical fibre detectors to the right part of the focal plane, Matthew explains. “Every optical fibre will have a little robot attached to it that can walk around the focal plane in real time.” Each fibre can move independently of all the others, and the fibres can adjust to track an object as it moves across the sky.
Matthew says the team is planning to use optical fibres that filter out unwanted light emitted by the Earth’s atmosphere, and also hexabundles— clusters of small fibres that can be used to break images down into many bits so they can be spatially resolved.
“This isn’t just talk,” says Matthew. “We’ve built some prototypes already.”