Project Keeps Sky Watchers in Eternal Dark

Surveillance around the clock is offered to schoolchildren and astrophysicists via Internet-linked telescopes girding the globe.
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Surveillance around the clock is offered to schoolchildren and astrophysicists via Internet-linked telescopes girding the globe.

Wayne Rosing’s plan for a series of telescopes to connect schoolchildren and astrophysicists on every continent with the universe is barreling forward with the intensity of a flaming meteor.

By remotely linking groups of small and medium-sized telescopes around the world, an uninterrupted 24-hour view of the night sky will facilitate the mission of the nonprofit he founded for research and outreach education.

The telescopes will have sophisticated electronic detector arrays for deep-space imaging and will be distributed in groups at five or six sites around the world. Most important, they will be robotic, with control available from any Internet-accessible

“There is nothing in existence that compares with what we’re doing,” Rosing said. While scientists use the infrastructure already in place, his engineers build and install more telescopes and the enclosures to house them.

The programmable telescopes collect immense amounts of data. Should something occur — a near-planet asteroid, for example — they can be steered to the event within 20 seconds. And with robotic telescopes around the world, an observation that starts in one location can continue elsewhere, increasing the viewing time from eight hours to around the clock. As the nonprofit’s slogan puts it, “We will always keep you in the dark.”

Scaling the Heights
A pivotal figure in the development of the Internet and in particular the technology base for Java, Wayne Rosing has been fostering his “notion” of universal connectivity for 20 years. He’s been interested in astronomy his whole life — he’d planned to study math, physics and astronomy in college before diverting to computer science — and in 2005, after retiring as vice
president of engineering at Google
, he decided to devote himself full-time to his “hobby/effort.”

Rosing founded a nonprofit — Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, or LCOGT — to make this dream happen. (The name comes from a California neighborhood, Las Cumbres, which means “the heights.”)

The central project is to build 12 to 15 one-meter telescopes. One meter — about the diameter of an exercise trampoline — refers to the size of the mirror in each telescope, and the size of the mirror determines how much light the telescope will gather. (By comparison, the primary mirror in the Hubble Space Telescope is 2.4 meters, while the Keck Observatory at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea has 10-meter scopes.)

Projected to be finished in four years, “the one-meter telescopes will become the workhorse backbone of our scientific network,” Rosing said. But they’re not the only scopes in the stable — two-meter telescopes (think old-style satellite dish) have been acquired and sit atop mountains in Hawaii and Australia, while smaller 0.4- to 0.8-meter telescopes will be “peppered around the world.”

The telescopes will automatically collect information about stars, galaxies, nebulae and planets and run 30 to 40 scientific programs nightly. Working closely with astrophysics researchers in the physics department at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and with scientists around the world, the telescopes are already acquiring and analyzing data for research purposes.

One researcher, Rachel Street, a postdoctoral fellow at LCOGT, is using cameras mounted at sites at La Palma on the Canary Islands (in the Northern Hemisphere) and in Sutherland, South Africa (in the Southern Hemisphere), to hunt for extrasolar planets. Because orbiting planets block some of the light intensity in the stars they circle, astronomers can determine the presence of a planet by monitoring changes in a star’s brightness.

“We use this technique so we can find these planets to follow up on using the telescopes at LCOGT. There must be millions of planets just around the stars we can see,” Street said.

This method has enabled her and her colleagues to discover 10 new planets in one six-month period, an astounding achievement in the field.

Deploying the Network
Before heading to the Canary Islands — “to crawl around on top of two volcanoes” in search of telescope sites — Rosing brought the staff together to discuss the goals and constraints of the project.

“We’re going to push our way through to complete these deployments. We’re going to make this project happen,” he said.

While the telescopes are scattered across the planet, most activity occurs in offices and in an expansive workshop in Goleta, Calif., a suburban city next to UCSB. It was here that engineer Annie Hjelstrom spent a year refurbishing Rainwater before the telescope (named for the Mississippi observatory where it resides) made its way home.

Rainwater was the first installation in LCOGT’s network and, symbolically, Rosing’s first astronomy project. Its history reflects the progression of Rosing’s vision to connect the planet with the universe and to couple research with education.

In the ’90s, Rosing — “as sort of a hobby thing at that time” — built a telescope for a retired doctor in Colorado. The doctor eventually resumed work in Tennessee and donated the telescope to a century-old Presbyterian boarding school in Mississippi that wanted to expand their observatory. “I thought that was a worthy cause, so I volunteered LCO to refurbish that telescope — we’d come back and upgrade it and modernize it,” he explained.

So it came to pass that under the orange glow of parking lot street lamps in California, Hjelstrom maneuvered a forklift’s metal levers to support Rainwater. Finally assembled and ready to view the night sky, Rainwater was lowered for testing. Mechanical and computer issues had to be resolved before installation.

The project is not without challenges. Outside of her welder’s hood, sparks flew as Hjelstrom added the finishing touches to Rainwater. Torch in hand, she molded metal beads with the uniformity of stitches to seam the edges. Once assembled and functioning optimally, the telescope was packaged in a container larger than some apartments and shipped across the nation to the observatory.

In Mississippi, Hjelstrom, 50 amateur astronomers and the director of Rainwater Observatory, Jim Hill, trudged up a grassy hill to see the final product. In the large domed observatory, Rosing operated Rainwater and then passed the control paddle to Hill.

“It feels fabulous. If all the other installations can go this smoothly, we’ll be in good shape with deploying our network,” Hjelstrom said.

While the Rainwater telescope will immediately affect students at the boarding school with which it is affiliated, it also can be used remotely by scientists. But LCOGT also reaches students in remote locations who might never have access to a telescope. Pupils in schools all over the world will be able to view deep-space phenomena in real time using the Internet.

Schoolchildren in London are already pushing computer keys to maneuver the large telescope atop Mount Haleakala in Hawaii. Rosing’s goal in promoting interest in science is an essential element to the project. “If we can help another generation — the upcoming generation of young people —appreciate the notion of a scientific way of looking at the world, we will have made an important contribution.”

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