The Institute of Space Sciences & Astronomy (ISSA) of the University of Malta has started operating a National Astronomical Observatory in Gozo. Being the first of its kind for the Maltese Islands, the Observatory, which is sited in Nadur, represents a milestone for local astronomy.
The facility will be used for research projects, to train students specialising in astronomy in obtaining and analysing astrophysical data, and to engage the general public via the dissemination of astro images and educational activities.
The observatory was financed by the Eco-Gozo directorate within the Ministry for Gozo following a 2019 Memorandum of Understanding between Eco-Gozo and the University of Malta.
The observatory houses a telescope that has a half-metre-wide mirror and is of the type Ritchey-Chrétien, a configuration that is employed in many professional, research-grade telescopes. It is equipped with advanced instrumentation, including a cooled scientific camera and an adaptive optics system that carries out milli-second corrections to mitigate the blurring effects of our atmosphere.
Project coordinator Prof. Joseph Caruana, Astrophysicist at the Department of Physics and ISSA, explained that the specific site had been selected following detailed studies of light pollution on the Islands. “Light pollution is a big issue in Malta. Sites that are adequately dark are very rare – the two best sites we have left are the selected site in Nadur, and Dwejra, both of which should be conserved”, he explained.
The Institute announced that in recent weeks, the observatory had achieved ‘first light’ – the term that is used to describe the first astronomical images returned by a telescope following its installation and initial calibration.
These include an image of the crescent moon, and three images of distant galaxies – M51, M81, and M63. Caruana explained that these galaxies are well-known objects amongst astronomers.
“The first galaxy we imaged, M51, popularly known as the ‘Whirlpool Galaxy’, is a bit smaller in size than our own home galaxy, the Milky Way – it is actually an image of a pair of interacting galaxies whose light takes around 31 million years to reach us”, he explained.
M81, also known as ‘Bode’s Galaxy’, lies around 12 million light years away, while the third galaxy that was imaged, M63, known as the ‘Sunflower Galaxy’, lies over 29 million light years away.
Institute Director Prof. Kristian Zarb Adami remarked: “We welcome this collaboration with EcoGozo in the setting up of a National Observatory which will encourage the participation of more STEM students in the field of astronomy. This observatory will enable Maltese researchers to further their studies and carry out research in collaboration with foreign universities.”
This week, a group of international astronomers collaborating with ISSA on research projects that make use of the NASA/ESA James Webb Space Telescope visited the Islands. A public lecture was organised on Monday 15 May at the Valletta Campus, where Dr Stephen Wilkins (University of Sussex) provided an overview of the James Webb Space Telescope and the first results that were obtained with it. This was followed by a discussion session with Dr Wilkins, Prof. Caruana and Ms Louise Seeyave (University of Sussex), chaired by Prof. Zarb Adami. As part of this meeting, the astronomers also visited the observatory in Nadur, and discussed collaborative projects making use of this observatory.