AAL 2021/22 Annual Report – Astralis

The Astralis Consortium (formally known as Australian Astronomical Optics) was established in July 2018 as part of an initial ten-year collaboration between four parties in response to the Commonwealth’s plan for a National Optical Astronomy Instrumentation Capability. The partners include three universities – Macquarie University, The Australian National University (ANU) and The University of Sydney, with AAL as the fourth partner in the consortium.

Several of the major projects currently managed by Astralis take advantage of the Australia-European Southern Observatory (ESO) Strategic Partnership, including the Australian ESO Positioner (AESOP) – part of the 4-metre Multi-Object Spectrograph Telescope (4MOST) system for ESO’s VISTA telescope, the MAVIS instrument for use on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), Heimdallr (the fringe-tracking system for the Asgard instrument that will be deployed at ESO’s VLT Interferometer enabling, high-contrast and high-resolution imaging), and ESO Pipeline Software. Astralis is also involved in the development of new ESO instrumentation projects at pre-conceptual stage (such as BlueMUSE, HRMOS and MAORY).

Consortium highlights

Launch of Hector, the newest instrument built by Astralis for the AAT

After many years of work, Astralis constructed Hector in late 2021, the multi-Integral Field Unit spectrograph for the Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT). Hector builds on another highly successful instrument created for the AAT called SAMI, though Hector sports new-format, larger optical fibre imaging bundles – “hexabundles”. These hexabundles are able to be positioned over the AAT’s 2-degree field, with a novel new positioning system and new higher-resolution spectrograph created for this instrument.

Hector was designed to survey up to 15,000 galaxies, using its powerful spectrograph to investigate their diversity and physical properties. First light was achieved, and the first full commissioning run was successfully completed by the end of 2021 – second and third commissioning runs have been set for mid-to-late 2022. The results have been impressive, with Hector observing galaxies simultaneously in all of its hexabundles. Once Hector’s galaxy survey is up and running, it will be able to achieve five times the statistical sample of its predecessor instrument, SAMI.

Hector’s team leader and Astralis-USyd Director, Associate Professor Julia Bryant, was on hand to see the first images come through from the instrument, commenting how impressed she was by Hector, even at the early stages.

This is only the first of several commissioning runs and yet we have made enormous progress. There is, of course, a lot more to do in the next runs – however, the first light images already detect the rotation of gas in galaxies and we are excited to understand the gas physics in thousands of galaxies over the next few years.

Associate Professor Julia BryantHector team leader and Astralis-USyd Director
Hector first light image: there was light in the bundles! Bright horizontal lines show traces of light from the superposed galaxies. Each horizontal line represents a fibre. Vertical/diagonally aligned dots show emission lines and the more inclined the pattern, the higher the rotation of the stars across the face of the galaxy. A fantastic outcome for a first commissioning run. Credit: Dr Madusha Gunawhardana (University of Sydney) and the Hector Team.
AESOP arrived in Germany, ready to be assembled for use on 4MOST

After many years of design and analysis, manufacturing, the Australian-European Southern Observatory Positioner (AESOP) finally arrived in Germany, at the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam (AIP) ready for a integration with the 4MOST instrument.

Designed and built by Astralis-AAO (based at Macquarie University), AESOP is one of the core components of 4MOST, currently under construction for the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA). VISTA is part of ESO, located in Chile, with the complete 4MOST instrument scheduled to be sent to its final destination in May of 2023.

Once in place, AESOP’s Echidna tilting spine technology will simultaneously position 2,448 optical fibres at the focal surface of ESO’s VISTA telescope. Using AESOP, the 4MOST spectroscopic survey instrument will observe the southern sky for 15 years, obtaining spectra for millions of targets. AESOP is able to position all of its fibres on 10-micron targets in less than 1 minute.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented Astralis-AAO staff from completing assembly of AESOP on site in Germany. They were able to remotely supervise staff from the European 4MOST partners consortium, as the instrument was unpacked and delicately put together.

The AESOP project was made possible by the Australian Government’s 10-year Strategic Partnership with ESO. Australian astronomers will be able to participate in 4MOST spectroscopic surveys either as full members of the 4MOST Consortium or members of the 4MOST8 Australian Consortium. AAL supports the Australian Government in this partnership by managing domestic arrangements and funding for Astralis. For more information about the arrival of AESOP in Germany, please see this link.

AESOP. Credit: Rebecca Brown/AAO-Macquarie.

AAL and Astralis

AAL supports the Astralis Consortium with funding from the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). AAL was heavily involved in the establishment of the consortium, and as a partner provides effective and efficient oversight of the allocation of NCRIS funds and expenditure, ensuring conformity with the priorities of the Australian astronomical community.

AAL is actively involved in the activities of the Consortium, with representation on both the Astralis Board and the Astralis Management Committee. AAL also calls on the expertise of its advisory bodies, drawn from the Australian astronomical community, in its assessment of priorities for national investment in Astralis.