"First Light" for PANIC at Calar Alto Observatory
After about 8 years of development, the near-infrared wide-field camera PANIC entered operations during the full moon night November 6/7 2014 at the Calar Alto 2.2m telescope. This so-called "First Light" is without question the most important milestone for any astronomical telescope or instrument.
PANIC (PAnoramic Near-Infrared Camera) is a joint project of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy (MPIA) in Heidelberg and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA) Granada. The project management is shared between Matilde Fernandez (IAA) and Klaus Meisenheimer in Heidelberg (until his retirement Josef Fried was the project manager at MPIA). While IAA is mainly responsible for the optical design, optical adjustment and the observation- and pipeline software, MPIA takes care for mechanics (cryostat, filter wheels, etc.), the readout electronics and the motor controller.
The new instrument is amazing in multiple ways. While the development of highly sensitive electronic CCD cameras has revolutionized astronomical observations in visible light since the 1980s (with many elements of this technology now used in everyday cameras), the development of similar cameras for the infrared was much more difficult – particularly to achieve both large fields of view and good spatial resolution. PANIC consists of four detectors (with 2048 x 2048 pixels each), forming a square mosaic. When mounted at the 2.2m telescope, it is possible to map a field of view of ½ degree in diameter at a resolution of 0.45 arcsec per pixel. Thus, the PANIC field covers roughly the average apparent diameter of the full moon and allows both the detailed investigation of nearby extended objects and the observation of large samples (eg. surveys of distant clusters of galaxies).
Infrared observations are key to understanding many astronomical observations since the radiation from young stars and planetary systems penetrates their surrounding dust clouds only at longer wavelengths. Furthermore, the observation of distant galaxies is much easier, since important parts of their light spectrum are shifted into the infrared due to the expansion of the universe.
The first test images with PANIC have already demonstrated its.