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Astronomers turn to MAGIC

New telescope to scan skies for gamma rays.

MAGIC's mirror will be looking for gamma rays. Credit: © MAGIC Collaboration/R. Wagner

The dark hearts of galaxies, supernovae, mysterious gamma-ray bursts, and perhaps even the crackling echo of the Big Bang itself, may soon be revealed by MAGIC.

The Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov (MAGIC) telescope is being inaugurated today at the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma, one of Spain's Canary Islands. MAGIC's 240-square-metre mirror makes it the largest single set-up devoted to looking for gamma rays - the most energetic form of radiation in the Universe.

Gamma rays are blasted out by black holes at the centre of galaxies, by exploding stars and by unknown sources that blink like beacons in distant space. MAGIC is tuned to look for the weakest, and therefore oldest, of these rays.

"We should be able to look back eight billion light years," says team member Eckardt Lorenz of the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, Germany. MAGIC might even detect the gamma rays released by the Big Bang - no instrument built so far can reveal details of this, the Universe's most violent event.

When gamma rays hit Earth's atmosphere they collide with atoms in the air, breaking them apart and showering parts of them down through the atmosphere as cosmic radiation. The collisions release another form of energy called Cherenkov radiation.

Like a microphone picking up the clacking of billiard balls, MAGIC spots the crackle of Cherenkov radiation and infers the direction of gamma rays.

Low energy

Gamma-ray detectors were invented in the 1980s. Already, five ground-based telescopes and one in orbit are filling in astronomers' gamma-ray blind spot.

But there is room for more, says astronomer Alan Watson of the University of Leeds, UK, who leads another gamma-ray telescope project in Argentina. "I'm a quite a MAGIC fan."

I'm a quite a MAGIC fan Alan Watson , University of Leeds

By looking for low-energy gamma rays, MAGIC will fill an important gap between ground-based devices and the current space-based gamma-ray telescope, called Integral, says Watson.

The first objective, says Lorenz, is to point MAGIC at the Crab Nebula, the most reliable source of gamma rays in the Universe. Once calibrated from that source, the telescope can begin exploring the skies. "You never know what nature has to offer," he says.

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 University of Leeds

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Clarke, T. Astronomers turn to MAGIC. Nature (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/news031006-14

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