The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) announced that the Gemini Observatory is the recipient of a multi-million dollar award to enhance its role in the era of “multi-messenger astronomy” and future facilities like the James Webb Space Telescope. Gemini is managed by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA).

The award carries Gemini forward in two ways. One element funds major software and operational upgrades to improve capabilities at both Gemini telescopes for extremely rapid follow-up studies of transient sources. The other key aspect is a state-of-the-art multi-conjugate adaptive optics (AO) system for wide-field, high-resolution imaging at the 8-meter Gemini North telescope on Maunakea in Hawaii.

Additionally, the award supports international education and outreach activities focusing on the public understanding of multi-messenger astronomy as well as educational resources and programming for Gemini’s host communities in Hawaii and Chile.

“With this funding Gemini will significantly advance multi-messenger and time-domain, or transient-source, astronomy,” said Anne Kinney, Head of the Mathematical and Physical Sciences Division at NSF. “We’ve witnessed a surge of astronomical discoveries in areas such as gravitational waves, exotic varieties of stellar explosions, and collisions within our own solar system where a full understanding depends critically upon rapid characterization of the discoveries using ground-based facilities like Gemini,” Kinney added.

The term “multi-messenger astronomy” refers to the study of astronomical objects using a combination of electromagnetic radiation, high-energy particles (such as neutrinos), and gravitational waves. The NSF supports efforts to study the universe using all three of these windows, with the Gemini Observatory focusing on optical and infrared light. The new funding will strengthen Gemini’s ability to target a wide range of transient phenomena and study them in exquisite detail, including discoveries made using all types of astronomical “messengers.”

Advancing High-Resolution Astronomy

The award will fund the development of an advanced multi-conjugate AO system for high-resolution studies in the spatial domain. This system will use a laser to produce a “constellation” of artificial guide stars to help correct for distortions caused by the atmosphere above the Gemini North telescope. By monitoring these laser-produced stars, the system can correct for the effects of atmospheric blurring by rapidly applying complementary distortions using specialized deformable mirrors. The use of multiple artificial stars allows the system to produce exquisitely sharp images at infrared wavelengths over a much wider area than is possible with conventional AO systems that use only a single laser or bright star.

The planned system will be a more advanced version of the innovative Gemini Multi-Conjugate System (or GeMS), already in operation at the Gemini South telescope in Chile. GeMS is capable of producing images with a factor-of-two sharper spatial resolution than Hubble’s infrared camera. “We will be able to take the lessons learned from GeMS and apply the latest technology to continue Gemini’s leadership in the field of wide-field adaptive optics,” said Scot Kleinman, Associate Director for Development at Gemini.

The deployment of this system at Gemini North will enhance the discovery power of future instruments such as the Gemini Infrared Multi-Object Spectrograph (GIRMOS), a $15 million infrared spectrograph now being built by a consortium of Canadian universities. “The new wide-field AO system at Gemini North will create a world-leading capability that takes full advantage of the telescope’s performance and the calm skies over Maunakea,” said Suresh Sivanandam, an astronomer at the University of Toronto and principal investigator of the GIRMOS project. “This observatory upgrade will greatly enhance the output of next generation instrumentation such as GIRMOS by enabling breakthrough science that would otherwise be impossible because of atmospheric blurring.”

“Deep all-sky surveys will not only revolutionize the study of transient sources, but also revolutionize our view of what we think of as the ‘static universe,’ including most galaxies, quasars, and other distant objects that appear unchanging on human time scales,” added Gemini’s Chief Scientist John Blakeslee. “With a new cutting-edge AO system in the North, and GeMS in the South, Gemini will be the only ground-based observatory capable of obtaining wide-field, high-resolution infrared imaging, with a performance comparable to space-based telescopes, across the entire sky.”

Probing the Transient Universe

As recent events demonstrate, Gemini is already well positioned to respond to transient multi-messenger events. “We saw Gemini, and observatories around the world, spring into action when LIGO and VIRGO detected gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars,” said David Reitze, Executive Director of the NSF-funded Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO). “In order to probe the physical processes underlying the cataclysmic event that produced these ripples in spacetime, astronomers dissected the light from across the electromagnetic spectrum to reveal the details of this energetic collision, making it a truly multi-messenger event,” he added. “However, there is still a tremendous amount we don’t fully understand about such mergers, and that is where Gemini can play a critical role.”

The ability to follow-up new discoveries will become even more important early in the next decade when the NSF-funded Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) begins operations on Cerro Pachón, adjacent to the Gemini South telescope in Chile. The LSST is expected to discover over a million new transient sources each night, only a small fraction of which can be targeted for follow-up study. “Because of the two sites in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, Gemini’s telescopes can observe the entire sky.” said Laura Ferrarese, Interim Director at Gemini. “Additionally, Gemini is quite unique among 8-meter class facilities in its ability to switch very rapidly between different instruments and programs, making it the ideal observatory for time-domain work.”

The new NSF funding will be used in part to develop automated systems to trigger follow-up observations within minutes of discovery and quickly deliver science-ready data to astronomers from all of Gemini’s partner communities. To enhance the total scientific impact, Gemini will also be able to operate as part of a larger network of telescopes dedicated to rapid follow-up of the most compelling time-domain discoveries.

Rapid response is essential because a variety of cosmic explosions and fast-moving or rotating solar system objects have properties that can change on time scales of minutes or less. The efficient delivery of calibrated data also increases the opportunity for scientific advances by users who may not be proficient in processing data from all of Gemini’s instruments. Andy Adamson, Gemini’s Associate Director for Operations, adds, “The new automated systems will make Gemini even more efficient and the definitive ‘go-to’ telescopes for time-critical observations.”

The Gemini Observatory is a facility of the National Science Foundation (NSF-United States), the National Research Council (NRC-Canada), the Comisión Nacional de Investigación Científica y Technológica (CONICYT — Chile), the Ministério da Ciência, Tecnologia e Inovação (MCTI — Brazil), the Ministerio de Ciencia, Technología e Innovación Productiva (MCTIP — Argentina), and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI — Republic of Korea), operated under cooperative agreement by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA).

The international Gemini collaboration provides access to two identical 8-meter
telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini telescope is located on Maunakea, Hawaii (Gemini North), and the Gemini South telescope is on Cerro Pachón in central Chile; together the twin telescopes provide full coverage over both hemispheres of the sky. The telescopes incorporate technologies that allow large relatively thin mirrors, under active control, to collect and focus both visible and infrared radiation from space. The Observatory provides the astronomical communities in each of the five participating countries with state-of-the-art astronomical facilities that allocate observing time in proportion to each country’s contribution. In addition to financial support, each country also contributes significant scientific and technical resources.