NOVEMBER 2012 -Gamma-ray twins strike back

MAGIC telescopes re-start observations of the gamma-ray sky after a full upgrade.

The MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov) observatory, sited at Roque de los Muchachos on the Canary island La Palma, saw first light in 2004 with the installation of its first telescope.

In 2008, with the addition of an almost twin, the observatory reached its full potential. On November 2012, now with its combined aperture being the largest operating Cherenkov observatory – each telescope sports a 17 meter aperture segmented mirror – restarted observations after a comprehensive upgrade and improvement of both telescopes.

MAGIC is different from the commonly used optical telescopes: although detecting visible light, it uses the atmosphere as a "natural converter" to detect high energy gamma rays emitted from cosmic sources. These are invisible to the human eye but produce flashes when they interact with the atoms and molecules high in the Earth's atmosphere, lasting billionths of a second that can be registered by the sophisticated detectors on MAGIC. These faint, rare events are signals of the most energetic and extreme objects in the universe.

The two MAGIC telescopes, operating as a coordinated pair, are much more efficient than a single telescope because they can watch these flashes “in stereo”, precisely locating their point of origin above the atmosphere and determining their origin, much like binoculars. The MAGIC system of telescopes has been very successful in exploring the gamma-ray sky. With their huge mirrors, the telescopes are very sensitive to the lowest gamma rays detectable from the ground, that connect with observations from spacecraft that cannot reach this range. This singular feature has enabled the twin telescopes to detect with unprecedented accuracy a pulsar in our own Galaxy – the magnetized neutron star that was produced during the Crab supernova explosion of 1054, at these extremely high energies along with the farthest active galactic nucleus in this energy band.

The two MAGIC telescopes are similar but not identical. The second telescope, built four years after the first, has many improvements so the international collaboration of astrophysicists behind the construction of MAGIC undertook a full upgrade of the telescopes three years ago. Extremely fast readout electronics for both telescopes, a larger field of view and a brand new camera for the first telescope are the highlights of the upgrade. Gamma rays produce extremely fast electrical pulses in the telescope cameras, as short as a few nanoseconds (one thousand of one millionth of a second). The readout electronics must be equally fast and, even more challenging, all thousand pixels in the camera must be read out at the same time. The “field of view”, the region of the sky observed by the telescope, has almost doubled, boosting the chances of the telescopes to discover new gamma-ray objects or to study them in more detail. After a successful verification phase, the telescopes will open their 17-meter wide eyes to the sky again in November.

The scientists of the MAGIC collaboration, a joint enterprise of about 150 scientists from nine countries, are carrying out a broad range of studies. Among these are the monitoring of active galactic nuclei that are powered by supermassive black holes, rapidly rotating magnetized neutron stars (called pulsars) and Gamma Ray Bursts. The telescopes are even used to study the light of distant galaxies that probe the density of the visible and infrared light emitted through the history of the universe. The discovery of very high energy gamma rays from pulsars was unexpected and proved that the gamma rays can efficiently escape (by a yet unknown mechanism) from the magnetospheres around these neutron stars. What causes a Gamma Ray Burst, the most energetic cosmic explosion known, remains a mystery – these beamed jets expand at nearly the speed of light becoming, for a few seconds to minutes, the brightest objects in the gamma-ray sky only to vanish.

Although these objects are rare, the new MAGIC twins will lead to breakthroughs in the field. The collaboration will meet in La Palma on November 12th – 16th to discuss the latest results of the telescopes and plan the next years of scientific observations.

International journalists are invited to visit the MAGIC telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory during the afternoon of November 15th. A technical demonstration of the telescopes will be offered, and they will have the opportunity to talk with the collaboration representatives, as well as with researchers coming from most of the institutions that participate in the project.

Journalists attending this event are kindly asked to confirm their attendance by sending an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Please arrive no later than 16:30 to the MAGIC site at the observatory.


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