Smart telescopes probe galactic mysteries

Wherefore art thou, gamma ray bursters?

Astronomers in the UK have launched an observation project on a global network of telescopes that will be controlled by intelligent software, rather than human intervention.

Dubbed RoboNet-1.0, the project maintains continuous 24-hour monitoring of certain phenomena, and respond automatically to sudden changes in a patch of sky, such as that caused by a Gamma Ray Burst. It is also joining the hunt for Earth-like exoplanets. It is a global network of telescopes that acts as one giant telescope by passing the observations of one telescope on to the next as the object of interest moves in and out of view.

It is critical, in astronomy, to be able to respond quickly to any changes in the sky, according to the project's backers. There are several reasons why this is difficult. Firstly, observers must endure hours and hours of daylight, dammit, when they just can't look at the sky. So it is useful to be able to draw on non-local resources. Secondly, changes are easily missed.

Professor Michael Bode of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) commented: "Astronomical phenomena are however no respecters of such limitations [as weather conditions, hours of darkness etc], undergoing changes or appearances at any time, and possibly anywhere on the sky. To understand certain objects, we may even need round-the-clock coverage - something clearly impossible with a single telescope at a fixed position on the Earth's surface."

Software developed by the LJMU-Exeter University "eSTAR" project holds the whole thing together. eSTAR consists of multiple software agents, intelligent programmes capable of making decisions based on incoming data. With a little help from GRID computing, they allow the network to respond to the sky in a co-ordinated manner.

"We have been able to use and develop new Grid technologies to build a network of intelligent agents that can detect and respond to the rapidly changing universe much faster than any human," Dr Iain Steele, co-ordinator of the eSTAR project said.

He explained that the software agents act as virtual astronomers, collecting, analysing and interpreting data continually. They only alert the project's real-world astronomers when they make a discovery.

One of the network's first tasks will be to listen for a signal from the soon-to-be-launched Swift satellite, which will be scanning the skies from Earth orbit for Gamma Ray Bursts.

Gamma Ray Bursts are the most violent explosions the universe has seen since the big bang, astronomers say. They release far more energy than a supernova and so in a matter of minutes, at most, and often only last for mere milliseconds. Their afterglow lasts for weeks, but it is the actual explosion that astronomers really want the data on.

RoboNet is programmed to respond to co-ordinates sent by Swift within a minute of receiving them, and should be able to give astronomers a real insight into the origins of the phenomena.

Telescopes in the network include the Liverpool Telescope (LT) and the Faulkes North (FTN). The Faulkes South (FTS), will join, soon. If the project is succesful, the network is likely to be expanded to include up to six robotic telescopes.®

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