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Aarhus University takes over operation of the Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma

The Nordic Optical Telescope on La Palma plays a major role in research by Nordic astronomers, and in the education of new astronomers. It has been doing this for more than 30 years, and it will to continue to do so. Together with the University of Turku in Finland, Aarhus University has just taken over the observatory, which was otherwise under threat of closure.

2020.12.21 | Peter F. Gammelby

The silvery dome of the observatory on top of a mountain above the clouds, situated next to a low service building.

With its location at an altitude of 2.4 kilometers at La Palma, the Nordic Optical Telescope is one of the best places in the world for astronomical observations. Photo: Arthur Radko, Nordic Optical Telescope.

The silvery dome photographed on a clear and starry night sky, with a meteor drawing a white streak across the sky.

A meteor passes the clear night sky and the telescope at La Palma. Photo: Diana Juncher, Nordic Optical Telescope.

With its position at a height of 2.4 km on the island of La Palma, the Nordic Optical Telescope (NOT) is one of the best places in the world for astronomical observations. Not only is observation almost totally undisturbed by the atmosphere, but in the nearest town, Los Llanos, even the street lamps have been shielded, so that light from them does not pollute the pictures from space.

With a mirror diameter of 2.56 metres, it is among the 50 largest in the world, and it has a very high quality lens. Since its opening in 1989, the observatory has continuously been upgraded with new and advanced instruments, and there is still strong demand for observation time at NOT, including from researchers in the rest of the world.

From now on, the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University will be managing observation hours.

The University of Turku has taken over ownership of the actual buildings, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhus University will be taking care of administration and operation. This includes distribution of observation data, development and maintenance of the telescope and instruments, and not least paying the local staff at NOT, who are now on the Aarhus University payroll.

Important rescue

The two universities have taken over NOT because the organisation that founded the telescope - the Nordic Optical Telescope Scientific Association (NOTSA) - no longer wanted to own and run it.

According to the head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Ulrik Ingerslev Uggerhøj, it was clear in the negotiations that NOT would have been closed down if the two universities did not take over.

And it was very important to save the telescope:

"The telescope is among the 50 largest in the world, and we expect a lot from it. One of the greatest strengths of NOT is its flexibility. In the planned rapid response mode, we will be able to direct the telescope towards an astronomical object within just a few minutes. This is essential if we want to observe so-called transient phenomena, which are often visible for just a few minutes. It is particularly relevant in connection with the discovery of gravitational waves and their optical counterparts, or observations of quasars," says Ulrik Ingerslev Uggerhøj, and he adds:

"I welcome our Spanish staff and I look forward to working with them - now within the Aarhus University and University of Turku framework."

Support from the Agency

Operating expenses are being paid for by a partnership between Nordic universities. The Danish share is being paid for by the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation via the Finance Act. The Danish contribution ensures that Danish researchers and students will continue to be able to use the telescope to study the universe in the years to come.

"I’m pleased with the dialogue and the collaboration between all the parties involved in the transfer, and I wish the observatory all the best in the future. The telescope was originally built in a unique collaboration between the Nordic countries and Spain, and the staff in Spain have done a great job at NOT. Since it was established, the telescope has kept up with developments and it has had a major impact for Danish researchers," says Stine Jørgensen, deputy director general at the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Upgrades of the instrumentation have been part of the strategy since the start. In future, NOT will be equipped with the new NOT Transient Explorer (NTE) instrument, which is a combined camera and spectrograph and it will be particularly suitable for observing short-term phenomena in the sky with time resolutions of minutes or even seconds. NTE is expected to be ready for use in 2022.

Further information

The home page of Nordic Optical Telescope


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