U of M researchers exploring sky with TURBO telescope

How do you spot a galaxy 23,000,000 light years away in space?

Researchers at the University of Minnesota are answering that question with a newly developed device called a TURBO telescope.

As its name implies, it’s fast… scanning the skies in seconds.

“The light comes in here, hits a mirror in the back, and bounces it out to the camera,” explains Daniel Warshofsky, an astrophysics grad student. “Human nature is about curiosity and exploring the unknown.”

Warshofsky and astrophysics researcher Ramona White are part of the team using a TURBO prototype to explore the final frontier—  the device is installed in a field at the University’s St. Paul campus.  

“TURBO can act really quickly and zoom across the sky within two seconds, looking for light that may be emerging from cataclysmic events,” says Patrick Kelly, an assistant professor at the School of Physics and Astronomy. “To look for and look at nearby galaxies and try to catch supernovae just when they explode, the first minutes of a supernova explosion.”

But this telescope— built by university researchers and students— is no ordinary eye on the sky.

TURBO is short for ‘Total Coverage Ultra-fast Response to Binary Mergers Observatory.’

As its name suggests, this telescope is built for speed.

“Bigger telescopes can only see really small areas, but TURBO has a really large field of view, so it can look everywhere really quick, and find where (an event) is,” Warshofsky notes.

Operating the TURBO device isn’t as simple as pressing a button.

The team uses a laptop with a wireless connection to issue commands to a second computer inside the telescope.

The device can swivel in seconds.

Its job is to hunt down and track gravitational waves and light, created by colliding black holes and neutron stars.

The team says TURBO can scan the sky ten times faster than a conventional telescope.

We asked why it takes so long for other devices to zero in on an event in space.

“Other telescopes are much larger than the TURBO, so they weigh more, and it takes longer for them to move,” Warshofsky explains.

“A 150-degree— or square degree area…. In a couple of seconds it can zoom across,” White adds. “So it’s really covering huge areas of the sky, to look for events.””

But with all this TURBO talk, we wondered what’s the hurry?

It turns out those slower, larger telescopes can sometimes miss the first moments of those intergalactic light shows.

“In many cases there may be a bright flash of light, if we’re lucky,” Kelly says. “And so we want to be able to see that, ‘cos it may fade really quickly, so that’s another reason to get there quickly.”

The three-year project is primarily funded by a $1-million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Kelly says the university is also providing some funding.

The researchers say they hope by June, that two sets of eight TURBO scopes will be placed at observatories in New Mexico and Greece.

Kelly— who’s the project’s lead investigator— says he’s been looking in the metro for vendors to build enclosures for the telescope arrays.  

The idea, the team says— is that science will lead to new discoveries in space— and give us some answers about where we come from.  

“It’s something more noble, I think, about this part of the human experience,” White says. “We don’t just exist to do the mundane things of life. We exist to create art and we can exist to study science and dig deeper into our curiosities and try to find the answers.”