A fine scientific tool has expanded from the observatories of professional astronomers into classroom and into the homes and offices of amateurs: roboscoping, the remote control of large telescopes through Internet linkage.
Seven astronomy buffs tried it out in a downtown Salt Lake City office building the night of Dec. 22. We were guided by J.D. Armstrong, a former Utahn who is the education and outreach specialist with the Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawai’i. In town to visit family at Christmas, Armstrong joined us a conference room in Bob Moore’s office. While snowy Salt Lake City glistened in the icy night outside the 16th-floor windows, we sipped soft drinks and controlled a 78-inch-diameter telescope atop the Heleakala volcano on Maui.
The instrument was the Faulkes North Telescope, part of the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network. Another partner in the network is the Faulkes South Telescope located at Siding Spring, Australia. The network is a British private foundation with the goal of “building a global network of telescopes for scientific research and research-based education.”
It has a strong educational outreach program, helping to bring observatory-scale astronomy to thousands of British school children. Because the Faulkes North instrument is on Maui, 10 percent of its use is dedicated to research and outreach by the University of Hawaii. The Salt Lake Astronomical Society was involved because of its own public outreach and education programs.
A laptop connected to a projector beamed the action onto a screen as Armstrong logged onto the Faulkes site. A quick check of weather at the volcano top showed it was dry, 4.6 degrees C. at that altitude, with 40 percent humidity. A new window on the Internet opened onto Wikipedia, providing the astronomical coordinates of targets we had chosen.
When our time began, the University of Utah’s Paul Ricketts typed in the coordinates for our first view, a galaxy called 1275.
As the huge telescope began to move, enough light remained in the Pacific sky to light it for a web cam. Soon night was so dark we could barely see the telescope’s superstructure through that small camera.
We chose the color filters to use and the length of the exposure, and let the telescope do the rest. We took four exposures, each for two minutes — red, green blue and clear — and waited for the large files to download onto the Faulkes computer archives. The views were combined automatically in a low-resolution file while the higher-resolution images were kept available so we could download them into our own computers and adjust them. This photo was a little disappointing, as we could not make out the giant streams of magnetic material that are streaming from the elliptical galaxy.
Next Rodger Fry, the Society’s chieftain for the Faulkes experiment, chose an unusual object in the constellation Eridanus, NGC 1421, a startling, edge-on spiral.
A short test photo showed that the galaxy was not entirely in the frame. The group sent a few adjustment commands until it was centered better, then began taking the image. The first attempt showed a green streak through the galaxy, the track of a satellite that happened to pass during the green exposure.
No satellite showed up to mar the next set of images.
[Spiral galaxy NGC 1421, taken Dec. 22 in Salt Lake City and Hawaii. I used views from both attempts, except the one with the satellite streak]
I had the last shot. With the help of Moore and the others, I squeezed out five images of a target I had attempted with my own telescope in October, NGC 7331. Three of the views were through red, green and blue filters, while the others were hydrogen Alpha and hydrogen Beta.
I’d had a cold hassle with the galaxy in October, but we had only to order the telescope to point and shoot, and the large views were in the can. The last was finished only seconds before our time ran out.
In the picture, the nearly face-on spiral is so large it sprawls out of the field of view. What looks like a faint glowing hemisphere on each side of its dust lanes is the central bulge.
[Our view of the galaxy NGC 7331, taken by the Faulkes telescope]
“It was a lot of fun,” Moore said later in an e-mail. “Running the Faulkes is out of this galaxy!!!”
Fry marveled that new innovations allow even amateur astronomers to be part of scientific research and discovery. “We are truly living in the golden age of astronomy,” he said.
The group was able to “direct a world-class telescope, located several thousand miles away, to point at our target,” he said. “It is even more astounding that we can send commands through cyberspace to the telescope and allow it to collect images of our target using the exposure times and filters we desire.
“This is all completed while we are in the comfort of a nice warm office surrounded by our friends and colleagues.” Moore thinks that if Galileo could have known of this technology, he would have been even more surprised than he was when he first used his telescope.
Patrick Wiggins, NASA solar system ambassador for Utah, was delighted with the experience. “Walking from blowing snow and cold, and sitting in what has to be called a plush office, and controlling a 35-ton telescope with a few keystrokes, in Hawai’i … just goes to show that no longer do you have to worry about bad weather if you have the right equipment.”
The robotic telescope adventure goes beyond professional and educational use. Kurt Fisher pointed out that similar private programs are available commercially to anyone interested in trying. One is the Slooh system in the Canary Islands and Australia and another is called GRAS, for Global-Rent-A-Scope.
[A view of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Although the nebula is a southern hemisphere object, Kurt Fisher took this view of it from Utah on Dec. 18, using a roboscope in Australia]
GRAS uses Internet connections to control telescopes in New Mexico and Australia. “These private initiatives provide fee-based public access to robotic 10-inch to 18-inch telescopes,” Fisher said.
“Roboscoping does not give the hands-on experience that setting up and running your own telescope does,” Fisher added.
“But for the young sky-watcher, it still conveys the basic message that draws young and old to amateur astronomy –- the sense of endless time and grandeur that comes from sitting quietly under a night sky and looking at light that left distant galaxies when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth.”