A new instrument for the observatory of the University of Leicester

Posted by Klaas Wiersema and Rhaana Starling at Dec 03, 2019 10:22 AM |
Leicester astronomers are testing out a brand new instrument for the observatory, made possible by a grant from the Royal Society.
A new instrument for the observatory of the University of Leicester

LE2Pol mounted at the telescope in Oadby, with Dr Wiersema celebrating first light

Most instruments on telescopes measure the brightness or the colours (spectrum) of objects in the night sky. However, there is a third property of light that astronomers can use: the polarisation of light from these objects. When light is polarised, it means that there is a non-randomness in the plane of oscillation of light waves. An instrument called a polarimeter can measure this directionality. Most stars are not intrinsically polarised. However, thin clouds of dust in our Milky Way intercept some of the light of some stars. This dust scatters the starlight, inducing polarisation. By measuring the polarisation of stars, we can then map out the properties of dust clouds across the Milky Way.


Recently, Dr. Rhaana Starling of the University of Leicester School of Physics & Astronomy received a grant from the Royal Society to build such a polarimeter, for the large telescope at the University observatory in Oadby (maintained by Dipali Thanki). The instrument was named LE2Pol (LE2 is the first part of the observatory postcode). Dr. Klaas Wiersema designed the polarimeter and constructed it, using optical components manufactured for us in the UK and the USA. On 29 November, LE2Pol was mounted on the telescope for the first time. It was the first time starlight entered the instrument, a milestone called “first light”. A first inspection of the data showed the instrument works as designed.


Over the next years, LE2Pol will be used for a number of science projects, in particular to map out the dust structure in specific areas of the sky where large radio telescopes make deep maps. By combining these radio data with the LE2Pol star polarisation survey, Wiersema and Starling hope to better understand the interaction of light and dust in these regions.


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