A new space exploration device designed to work with one of the world’s most powerful telescopes will provide scientists with unprecedented detail of the origins of the Milky Way, the galaxy that includes our solar system.
Combining with the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) on the Canary Island of La Palma, Weave (WHT Enhanced Area Velocity Explorer) will be able to survey a thousand stars per hour until it has catalogued five million.
Speaking to the BBC, Weave designer Professor Gavin Dalton, of Oxford University, explained: “We’ll be able to trace the galaxies that have been absorbed as the Milky Way has been built up over cosmic time, and see how each absorption triggers new star formation.”
Astronomers will be able to position a thousand fibre-optic cables on the main telescope, in effect turning each into a tiny telescope which then positions precisely on a star to collect the light from it. That information is then fed back to another instrument that maps the rainbow spectrum of light from each star thus revealing that star’s history.
Weave can complete this application for a thousand stars in a single hour, at which point the plate ‘flips’ and the next thousand stars can be surveyed.
Dr Marc Balcells, who is in overall charge of the project, told the BBC: “We have been hearing for decades that we are in a golden era of astronomy – but what the future awaits is a lot more important.
“Weave is going to be answering questions that astronomers have been trying to answer for decades such as how many pieces come together to make a big galaxy? And how many galaxies were united to make the Milky Way?”
Although Weave can survey up to five million stars, the scale of its task is daunting – there are an estimated 400 billion stars in the Milky Way – but it will give scientists unprecedented access to the early origins of the galaxy.