The twin telescopes of the Gemini observatory, each with a diameter of 8.1m, are placed in both hemispheres, Gemini South in Chile and Gemini North in Hawaii and have privileged access to the skies. In 2014, Gemini issued a call for feasibility studies of a future instrument that would maintain the excellence of the observatory into the next decade. Among the selected teams was OCTOCAM, an ambitious project lead by researchers from the HETH group (High Energy Transients and their Hosts) from the Instituto de Astrofísica of Andalucía (IAA-CSIC).
After the feasibility study, OCTOCAM participated in the final call for proposals of the new facility instrument, in August 2016. After a thorough evaluaion it was selected for construction and funded with a total budget of 15 million USD in a contract that was signed last week.
“OCTOCAM has been designed to revolutionize the research in many fields of astrophysics. To achieve this, a large, international group of scientists determined the key science questions to be addressed in the coming decade and those were used subsequently to define the technical characteristics that will allow OCTOCAM to answer them”, says Antonio de Ugarte Postigo, scientist at IAA-CSIC and principal investigator of the project.
OCTOCAM will use eight state-of-the-art detectors to simultaneously observe at optical and infrared wavelengths, which have readout speeds of only several tens of milliseconds. These characteristics, together with its exceptional sensitivity, makes it a unique, unparalleled instrument that is capable of multiplying the collecting power of the telescope by a factor of eight.
Although the instrument was designed to satisfy the needs of many research subjects, OCTOCAM is optimized for the study of transients: very energetic and often very distant events such as gamma-ray bursts and supernovae. “The temporal resolution of OCTOCAM will allow us to study the explosion of a star at the end of its life and the formation of a black hole in slow motion”, explains Christina Thöne (IAA-CSIC), Project Manager of the Spanish node of the project.
OCTOCAM will be installed at the Gemini South telescope in Chile and it will support the LSST (Large Synoptic Survey Telescope), a telescope that aims at detecting thousands of transients each night. OCTOCAM will deliver a privileged view on different types of supernovae and their progenitors and reveal the complicated physics behind those explosions. Furthermore, OCTOCAM will facilitate studies regarding the formation and evolution of neutron stars and black holes, and it allows astronomers to study gamma-ray bursts, a unique tool for the exploration of the Universe at the time when the first stars were just being formed.
OCTOCAM also has the potential to contribute to other subfields of astrophysics: It can indentify and characterize planets around other stars via the transient method and study the interiors of stars by analyzing stellar oscillations. It will also trace the history of the solar system by observing trans-Neptunian objects, and study the chemical evolution of galaxies.
The instrument, to be delivered in 2022, has been coordinated from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia (IAA-CSIC) by Antonio de Ugarte Postigo and Christina Thöne in collaboration with Southwest Research Institute (SwRI, Texas), George Washington University (GWU, Washington D.C.) and FRACTAL S.R.L (Madrid). “We want this project to be a tribute to our colleague Javier Gorosabel who died in 2015 and was one of the initiators of the first OCTOCAM concept”, concludes Antonio de Ugarte Postigo (IAA-CSIC).