A New Telescope Can Observe Even in Broad Daylight

Astronomy is a profession that, so far, has only been done at night, at least on Earth. Light from the Sun overwhelms any light from other stars, making it impractical for both professional and amateur astronomers to look at the stars during daytime. There are several disadvantages to this, not the least of which is that many potentially exciting parts of the sky aren’t visible at all for large chunks of the year as they pass too close to the Sun. To solve this, a team from Macquarie University, led by graduate student Sarah Caddy, developed a multi-camera system for a local telescope that allows them to observe during daytime.

The University has a system known as the Huntsman Telescope, named after the famous Australian spider species. Its design was inspired by the Dragonfly Telescope Array, initially designed by researchers at the University of Toronto and Yale, among other institutions. Both telescopes feature an array of 10 telephoto lenses from Canon, the camera manufacturer, arranged in a honeycomb pattern.

Typically, the telescope is used for nighttime astronomy at the Siding Spring Observatory, about a seven-hour drive from Sydney. However, Ms. Caddy thought it could do better and potentially continue observations during the day.

An image of Betelgeuse during the day using the Huntsman Telescope.
Credit – Macquarie University

They originally tested their ideas, which focused on a number of broadband filters and a single-lens test version of the Huntsman telescope. This allowed them to optimize things like exposure times and timing and show a proof of concept that they then wrote up in a paper in the Publications of the Astronomical Society of Australia. 

In particular, Ms. Caddy and her colleagues are excited about several use cases. One is tracking particular stars that might soon undergo an exciting event. Betelgeuse comes to mind, as astronomers expect it to undergo a supernova sometime “soon,” though soon in astronomical terms could mean anywhere between tomorrow and 10 million years from now. If Betelgeuse happens to be on the other side of the Sun when it goes supernova, without daylight astronomy, there would be months of a gap where we would miss out on collecting data on the supernova that happened nearest to us in recorded history, and astronomers everywhere would be frustrated.

This is exactly why the Huntsman team used a daytime image of Betelgeuse as part of their proof of concept. While it might not look like a typical image of the star that is 650 light years away, the fact that it is visible at all during the daytime is striking.

Betelgeuse is one of the most interesting stars in the sky – a potential supernova that goes through occasional dimming periods, as Fraser explains.

Another use case is the tracking of satellites. As the orbital space around Earth becomes increasingly crowded, there’s a higher likelihood that satellites will begin colliding, which could eventually result in something as severe as Kessler syndrome, which we’ve discussed before here at UT. Unfortunately, astronomers can only track satellites during the night, so if one of their orbits happens to shift for some reason during a day cycle, it would be impossible for them to suggest changes to the orbital paths of other satellites that are close by.

Unless you have daytime astronomy, which allows you to track satellites during the day, there’s a significantly decreased risk of two running into each other unexpectedly. This data can be combined with radar readings to help avoid catastrophic collisions, no matter how crowded orbital space gets.

This proof of concept is a step toward making those observations a reality. As it is more fully tested, the southern sky will become much more accessible, and it could pave the way for other daytime astronomy projects in other parts of the world.

Learn More:
Macquarie University – Stargazing in broad daylight: How a multi-lens telescope is changing astronomy
Caddy, Spitler & Ellis – An Optical Daytime Astronomy Pathfinder for the Huntsman Telescope
UT – Astro-Challenge: Adventures in Daytime Astronomy
UT – Why Can We See the Moon During the Day?

Lead Image:
Macquarie’s Huntsman Telescope can potentially observe space during the day.
Credit – Macquarie University

Andy Tomaswick

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