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Caltech's NIRES Instrument Achieves "First Light"

A new Caltech-built instrument at the W. M. Keck Observatory has captured its first spectral image.

Astronomers have successfully met a major milestone after capturing the very first science data from W. M. Keck Observatory's newest instrument, the Caltech-built Near-Infrared Echelette Spectrometer (NIRES).

The Keck Observatory-Caltech NIRES team recently completed the instrument's first set of commissioning observations and achieved "first light" with a spectral image of the planetary nebula NGC 7027.

"The power of NIRES is that it can cover a whole spectral range simultaneously with one observation," said Keith Matthews, the instrument's principal investigator and chief instrument scientist at Caltech.

Matthews developed the instrument with the help of Tom Soifer, the Harold Brown Professor of Physics, Emeritus, at Caltech and member of the Keck Observatory Board of Directors; Jason Melbourne, a former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech; and Dae-Sik Moon of the University of Toronto, who is also associated with Dunlap Institute and started working on NIRES when he was a Millikan postdoctoral fellow at Caltech about a decade ago.

Because NIRES will be on the telescope at all times, its specialty will be capturing Targets of Opportunity (ToO)—astronomical objects that unexpectedly erupt. This capability is now more important than ever, especially with the recent discovery announced October 16, 2017, of gravitational waves caused by the collision of two neutron stars. For the first time in history, astronomers around the world detected both light and gravitational waves from a cosmic event, triggering a new era in astronomy.

"NIRES will be very useful in this new field of 'multi-messenger' astronomy," said Soifer. "NIRES does not have to be taken off of the telescope, so it can respond very quickly to transient phenomena. Astronomers can easily turn NIRES to the event and literally use it within a moment's notice."

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Whitney Clavin
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