The whole world will soon have the stars and galaxies at its finger tips. The 0.9-meter telescope at Case Western Reserve University's Nassau Astronomical Station will go online by December 15 as the country's first Earth-bound robotic telescope accessible to the public. Amateur and professional astronomers alike can access the telescope by filing a viewing request through http://astrwww.cwru.edu/nassau/nassau.html.
The first online astronomers will help CWRU debug and refine the telescope operations, says Earle Luck, professor and chair of CWRU's Department of Astronomy.
The robotic telescope will provide two ways of viewing images. The primary viewing mode will be deeper images taken with main observing instrumentation of the telescope. The other is a quick look through finder telescope. These quick images will be posted in real time to allow a browser to see where the telescope is pointed by the main observation request.
"You can put the telescope wherever you want in the observable sky as far as the software and hardware are concerned," he adds. The requests can range for viewing time from a fraction of a second to five minutes and can be a request for a simple image to images using colored filters in red, green, or blue.
Users also will need to provide the position of the object to be observed. This information is available through online astronomy catalogues, also linked to the site. As the site develops, Luck plans to add more user-friendly information to make it easier for all to access the telescope.
Luck conceived the idea of robotizing the telescope. The reflector telescope at the Nassau Station is one of three telescopes operated by CWRU's Department of Astronomy. The Nassau Station is situated on one of the highest hills in Ohio's Geauga County, approximately 30 miles east of Cleveland.
The robotic telescope is composed of the telescope and its associated instrumentation (camera and finder-guider), weather station, weather camera, and power controls for the dome. Each has its own software, which feeds information into a master control program. A computer-based scheduler in the Department of Astronomy will coordinate the requests and return the completed images and information to the telescope users.
By mid-1999, a robotic spectrograph will also go online for those interested in information such as the chemical compositions of stars, how fast a star or galaxy is moving, and the temperature of the viewed object.
Linked to the telescope is a camera trained on Polaris (the North Star), in the direction of Lake Erie. The lake affects much of Northeast Ohio's weather conditions. If the Polaris monitor generates an all-clear signal for 30 minutes straight, the master controller will instruct the dome to open. Weather will be monitored every two minutes, with the dome closing in event of high humidity, rain, snow, extreme cold, or winds of 40 mph, any of which may damage the telescope's mirrors.
Because the station is located in a snow belt, Luck said the tricky part of installing weather equipment was to detect snow. He solved the problem by installing the snow detectors used to trigger the electric elements to melt snow from driveways.
Once the telescope has gathered the requested information, it will send a message to the telescope user that the observation is completed, with a link to a Web-accessible file of the images. A monitoring camera with a larger field of view is planned, which will look in the director of the requested image. Images from this camera will be posted in real time to the Nassau Station Web site.
The robotic telescope project received the support from the Martha Holden Jennings Foundation in Cleveland, the Case Alumni Association, the Offices of the CWRU President and Provost, and several private donors.
The telescope will become a teaching tool within the next year for area teachers as part of the Hands-On Universe science program to enable middle and high school students to learn math and physics through astronomy. The Hands-On Universe program from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is among a number of CWRU-community collaborations in the College of Arts and Sciences' Center for Science and Math Education, seeking to boost interests in these areas through discovery-based learning.
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