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First-light instrument for world's largest telescope passes design milestone

5 June 2020

A new ground-breaking instrument for astronomy research has passed a major design milestone at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO)’s headquarters in Garching, Germany.

Scientists and engineers at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC)’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh are responsible for a key component of this powerful imager and spectrograph.  The Mid-infrared ELT Imager and Spectrograph, or METIS for short will bring astronomers one step closer to being able to study the life cycle of stars, from infant stars and planet-forming discs to older stars near the end of their lifetime in our Solar System and in distant active galaxies.

The team at UK ATC are leading on a component within METIS called the LM-band high resolution Spectrometer (the LMS). The LMS will enable astronomers to study weather and climate in the atmospheres of nearby extra-solar gas giants. These are planets like our own neighbours – Jupiter and Saturn – but orbiting stars beyond our solar system.

Professor Alistair Glasse, Instrument Scientist, UK ATC says “The great thing about the LMS is that it is essentially an instrument (a spectrometer) within an instrument (METIS), which will implement several innovative technologies. Passing this design milestone – the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) – means that our overall design concept has been confirmed and we can get on with the detailed design and build of the instrument, where the UK ATC’s engineering expertise really comes into its own.”

METIS is one of a suite of first-light instruments for what will soon be the World’s largest optical to mid-infrared telescope, when it starts operations towards the middle of this decade. The Extremely Large Telescope, or ELT is currently being constructed on top of a mountain in Northern Chile (Cerro Armazones), which is part of ESO’s Paranal Observatory.

METIS will take full advantage of the ELTs 39-metre primary mirror and advanced adaptive-optics systems. The study of exoplanets (planets beyond our solar system) is one of the most dynamic and exciting fields of astronomy for both scientists and the public – and one in which METIS is expected to make large contributions. METIS has the potential to directly detect terrestrial exoplanets around the nearest stars and, even, investigate their atmospheric composition.

The instrument is being built by a consortium of European institutes, led by Leiden University in the Netherlands. Now that the instrument has passed this PDR, the METIS consortium will continue to develop its design in further detail before construction on the instrument starts.

“The ELT instruments are exceptionally challenging and the work involved in getting to this point is really substantial. Many congratulations to the METIS Consortium,” says Dr Suzanne Ramsay ELT Instrumentation Manager, ESO.

Professor Alistair Glasse further comments “The final design review in late 2021 will be a final check of the ‘blueprints’ before they are turned into real mirrors, mechanisms and electronics. 

“It will be really exciting to have an instrument which is powerful enough to observe the same targets as the space borne James Webb Space Telescope, or Webb for short, but with much higher spectral and spatial resolutions.  With the UK ATC heavily involved in both projects it really is an exciting time for astronomy in Scotland,” concludes Professor Glasse.


For more information:

The METIS consortium consists of:

  • NOVA (Netherlands Research School for Astronomy represented by the University of Leiden, The Netherlands),
  • Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA, based in Heidelberg, Germany),
  • University of Cologne (Germany),
  • UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC, in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK),
  • Katholieke Universitiet Leuven (Belgium),
  • Saclay Nuclear Research Centre (CEA Saclay, France),
  • Center for Astrophysics and Gravitation (CENTRA, University of Lisbon, Portugal), ETH Zürich (Switzerland),
  • A* (an Austrian partnership represented by the University of Vienna, the University of Innsbruck, the University of Graz, the University of Linz, and RICAM Linz, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria),
  • The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor (United States),
  • Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics in Taipei (Taiwan), and
  • Université de Liège (Belgium)

with contributions from ESO.


Last updated: 05 June 2020


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