The University of the Free State (UFS)’s ambition of becoming the leading academic institution in astronomical research, got a massive boost after it recently successfully mounted a spectrograph with a polarimeter.
The spectrograph is mounted to the Boyden Observatory 1,5-m telescope that will provide scientists with visual access to both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Once finalised, the installation will give the UFS the edge over its competitors as it will make the only academic institution in the country with access to 1.5-m telescope that is paired with a spectrograph. Furthermore, it will greatly enhance the UFS’s astrophysics research capacity.
Forging collaboration between academic institutions
The instrument will allow researcher from the UFS’s astrophysics group to do simultaneous polarimetry and spectroscopy of astronomical sources. The Boyden Observatory, a strategic astronomical research facility, which also serves as a science education centre, is located a few kilometres from Bloemfontein.
According to the university’s statement posted on its website, mounting the spectrograph to the telescope and installing the polarimetre, marks the completion of the upgrade of the 1,5-m telescope. Valued a cost of R1.5 million, the upgraded telescope which equipped with the spectropolarimetre, will also foster collaborative research between the UFS’s Astrophysics Groups and their counterparts from the Appalachian State University (ASU) in North Caroline in the US.
Credit to the founder of the instrument
Professor Richard Gray is credited with the development and building of the instruments which he started in 2019. Renowned globally as a stellar spectroscopy expert, Professor Gray is currently based at the ASU’s department of physics and astronomy. Another senior academic from the UFS’s department of astrophysics, Professor Pieter Mentjies, welcomed the installation of the instrument, saying “it took many hours of hard work, planning and testing to marry the 90-year 1.5-m telescope with the new sophisticated instrument.”
How the spectrograph works
Elaborating on how the instrument works, Professor Gray said when it is placed inside the spectrograph, this piece of equipment transforms the spectrograph into a spectropolarimeter, giving it additional functionality. He added: “This allows us, for example, to detect and analyse polarised light. It enables us to study the effect of magnetic fields in astronomical sources which introduce various polarisation signatures that can be detected with the polarimeter.”
Adding value to graduate programme
Professor Meintjies said: “The Department of Electronics and Instrumentation at the UFS played an enormous role in the building of several components of the instrument that Professor Gray designed, as well as getting the 1.5-m telescope research ready so that the completed instrument could be mounted to the telescope.” In addition, it will also add value to the university’s graduate programme. Professor Meintjies estimates the research instrument will be ready for research purposes by March this year. “Up till then researchers, graduates, and third-year students will have the opportunity to spend time on the spectrograph to familiarise themselves with it,” he added.
According to Professor Meintjies, the spectrograph has come in handy for his research as it offers endless possibilities. He said to study binary systems as well as the jets of Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), one needs a spectrograph, preferably with polarimetric capabilities. “It can also be applied to finding elements at the surface levels of stars so that their chemical composition can be determined. In the past, we needed to send our researchers to Sutherland and they were never guaranteed clear skies. Having this facility gives us so much flexibility,” he said.