Telescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes

Telescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Volcanic eruption in HawaiiTelescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Volcanic eruption in Hawaii


The bubbling cauldrons of gas and magma known as volcanoes are a source of constant fascination for scientists. The planet is dotted with them, both active and inactive. While some volcanoes are merely dormant, others have blown their tops and basically burnt themselves out long ago. Whatever the state, researchers are still drawn to them in an effort to understand them more clearly. Now, with the help of a new telescope currently under construction in Sicily, it looks like they’re going to get a better chance at it.

Mount Etna

The next-generation magnifier, known as the Imaging Atmospheric Cherenkov-Radiation Telescope, is being built in Serra La Nave near Mount Etna, Europe's largest and most active volcano. At almost 11,000 feet in height, the stratovolcano has erupted as recently as May 16, 2015. The original intent of the Cherenkov-Radiation Telescope was for tracking and viewing distant quasars and supernovae. Both of these celestial entities are known for their extremes. Supernovae are responsible for producing the largest explosions in space, while quasars are the brightest objects in the universe.


Telescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Image of quasarTelescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Image of quasar


Distant Galaxies

So, what do heavenly bodies floating about and/or combusting in distant galaxies have to do with volcanoes? Nothing, actually, but the telescope has or will have the ability (once it’s finished) to image the volcano’s inner structure through improved MELT, muon energy location technology. Cosmic ray muons are high-energy particles with the charge and spin of an electron but about 200 times the mass. When they interact with matter they can penetrate solid rock and allow us a peek at what’s inside.

Cherenkov-Radiation Telescope

Older muon technology produced pictures more akin to tomography diagrams for measuring volume or distance. With this advanced telescope scientists will now see the Cherenkov light produced along the muon path appearing as an annular pattern containing all the essential data needed to reconstruct particle direction and energy. The new approach also provides the added advantage of a negligible background and improved spatial resolution, making it easier to map density and to see what’s going on behind the rock curtain.


Telescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Volcano imagingTelescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Volcano imaging


Sonic Booms

The light in conjunction with Cherenkov radiation is actually the electromagnetic sonic boom that is manifested when a charged particle moves through a dielectric medium faster than the speed of light. In air, the speed of light is slower than it is in a vacuum. The new technology allows the process to capture the bluish light the cosmic muons leave in their wake as they pass. The telescope under construction uses two sets of curved mirrors to focus that light into a camera, thus creating the images scientists will soon view.

Italian National Institute for Astrophysics

It wasn’t long into the design phase before engineers at the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics realized they could utilize the Cherenkov-Radiation Telescope for imaging the interior of nearby Mount Etna. Once completed, the instrument will be capable of mapping the volcano’s inner structure more quickly and clearly than other MELT instruments. The team has determined that this new approach should yield an improvement in sensitivity 10 times that of previous technology, allowing them to more easily calculate the density distribution of Etna’s interior.


Telescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Living in the shadow of a volcanoTelescope Built for Quasars Sees Deep Inside Volcanoes: Living in the shadow of a volcano


Mount Vesuvius

Nearby Mount Vesuvius, located on Italy's west coast, is the only active volcano on mainland Europe. It has produced some of the continent's largest volcanic eruptions, most notably the 79 AD catastrophe which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Overlooking the Bay and City of Naples, it sits in the crater of the ancient Somma volcano. While the last eruption from the infamous volcano was back in 1944, it still represents a very real threat to the cities that surround it. It will be interesting to see whether or not the scientists looking into Mount Etna will be able to train the device on Vesuvius as well.

Life-Saving Technology

The data gathered from the Cherenkov-Radiation Telescope could prove invaluable in assisting volcanologists conduct hazard evaluations for future eruptions that can perhaps save lives. Buying time for evacuations help officials reduce the number of casualties significantly in the event of a natural disaster. If you’re interested in learning more about the project, you can read up on it at