Revolutionary high-speed camera captures movies of space on world's largest telescope

  • Revolutionary camera goes live on world’s largest telescope
  • New camera can take over 1,000 images per second in five different colours simultaneously
  • Images will significantly enhance scientists’ understanding of the dead remnants of stars – white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes – as well as exoplanets and the minor bodies of our Solar System

First light

A new camera which can take more than 1,000 images per second and will revolutionise scientists’ understanding of stars and black holes has gone live on the world’s largest optical telescope.

HiPERCAM will take high-speed images of objects in the Universe, allowing their rapid brightness variations - due to phenomena such as eclipses and explosions - to be studied in unprecedented detail.

Data captured by the camera, taken in five different colours simultaneously, will let scientists study the remnants of dead stars such as white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes.

These are key objects within astrophysics as their extreme gravities, densities and pressures allow researchers to test theories of fundamental physics, such as general relativity and quantum mechanics.

By observing objects in our Solar System pass in front of background stars, HiPERCAM will also teach scientists about the sizes and shapes of the minor planets beyond Pluto’s orbit, and whether or not they possess atmospheres, rings and satellites.

HipercamThe HiPERCAM project is led by Professor Vik Dhillon and his team at the University of Sheffield, in partnership with the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) and the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias, along with researchers from the University of Warwick and Durham University.

The pioneering five year project was funded by a 3.5 million Euro grant from the European Research Council (ERC). The camera has been mounted on the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) - the world’s largest telescope, with a 10.4 metre mirror diameter.

The GTC is based on the island of La Palma, situated 2,500 metres above sea level, which is one of the best places in the world to study the night sky.

Professor Vik Dhillon, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sheffield and Affiliated Researcher at the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC), said: “Normal cameras installed on large telescopes usually capture only one picture every few minutes. HiPERCAM can take one picture every millisecond. The high speed essentially provides a slow-motion view of rapidly varying celestial objects.

“The high-speed images are also captured in five different colours simultaneously, which means we can instantly tell the difference between hot stars – which are burning at tens of thousands of degrees Celsius and are blue in colour - and cooler stars, which appear red and are burning at only a few thousand degrees.

He added: “The combination of HiPERCAM and the world’s largest telescope provides us with a unique, new view of the Universe, which history tells us is when major new discoveries are made.

“Astronomers are excited to use HiPERCAM on the GTC to start exploring the Universe at high speed."

HipercamScience and Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah MP, said: “The vital role that STFC and UK universities played in developing HiPERCAM is a testament to the work of our world class scientists. This game-changing camera that will be installed on the world’s largest telescope will not only deepen our understanding of white dwarfs, neutron stars and black holes in our Universe, but it will help maintain our reputation as being a global-leader in research and development.

“It is projects such as these, and collaboration with partners and universities from across the world, which underpins our ambitious modern Industrial Strategy to boost innovation and help create a Britain fit for the future.”

Martin Black, an optical engineer from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) and part of the HiPERCAM team, said: “HiPERCAM was a challenging project that pushed the design team to fit a lot of scientific potential into a small space.

“The team had to work closely together to ensure everything fit together and to correctly position the cameras to around 30 microns, about the width of a human hair.”

How does HiPERCAM work?

This film shows the eclipse of a white dwarf observed by HiPERCAM on the GTC, sped up 100x. The top-left panel shows the blue image and the bottom-left the red image – HiPERCAM actually takes images in three additional colours to these, but they are not shown here.)

The white dwarf is the star in the middle towards the top of the image. It looks like a single star in the image, but it is actually an unresolved binary star, in which the white dwarf is orbited by a red dwarf in a very tight orbit. The red dwarf eclipses the white dwarf once every three hours, resulting in the deep eclipse shown in the right-hand panel.

Notice how the white dwarf appears brighter in the blue image than the red image, and shows a much deeper eclipse in the blue than the red. This shows that the white dwarf must be very bright and hot, and the red dwarf very faint and cool. The other two stars in the image are foreground/background stars that are not associated with the binary. By timing how long it takes the light to fade from bright to faint it is possible to work out the size of the white dwarf.

Academic staff:

Professor Vik Dhillon