Afghanistan Students for the International Olympiad in Astronomy & Astrophysics Need Your Help

Students from the Kayhana astronomy organization in Afghanistan. Image courtesy of Amena Karimyan.

The 16th International Olympiad on Astronomy and Astrophysics (IOAA) will be held this year in Silesia, Poland on August 10-20, 2023. 265 students from 53 countries will take part in this annual competition that challenges select high school students from around the world in astronomical science.

One group of student in particular stands out in overcoming incredible odds to qualify for participation in this event, and they need financial help to be able to attend. Student from Afghanistan have been restricted from publicly participating in science activities like astronomy due to the presence of the Taliban. Additionally, a majority of the students from Afghanistan who qualified to attend the IOAA are girls, and since the Taliban returned to power nearly two years ago, they have resumed pushing women and girls out of public life and out of schools.

Continue reading “Afghanistan Students for the International Olympiad in Astronomy & Astrophysics Need Your Help”

Help Bring Astronomy to Children in East Africa

Mponda Malazo from Tanzania who works with Astronomers Without Borders, teaches students about solar dynamics. Another solar viewing telescope with a sun-funnel will be on its way to Tanzania soon. Credit: Astronomers Without Borders.

The international astronomy outreach group Astronomers Without Borders has launched a major crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo, and they need your help. They are looking to raise $38,000 to fund a science center and observatory in East Africa to bring quality science education to the children of the area.

“It will be a game-changer for the region and a big project demonstrating the importance of astronomy education, including new curricula for teaching astronomy, teacher training, and more,” Mike Simmons, President and founder of AWB told Universe Today.

AWB has been actively working in this region since 2011 with their Telescopes to Tanzania project.

Simmons said Tanzanian students are often without textbooks and many basic educational resources and teacher training in science is often lacking.

“Providing the opportunity for people to get involved in this important project in East Africa is a perfect fit for Astronomers Without Borders’ motto, ‘One People, One Sky,'” he said.

After three years of making a difference in Tanzania by providing telescopes and teacher resources for schools, this new campaign goes even further, helping to provide a sustainable vision for the future and a pathway to success for the country’s youth.

Graph via Astronomer Without Borders.
Graph via Astronomer Without Borders.

The Center for Science Education and Observatory will provide astronomical and science training for both teachers and students. AWB said in a press release that by integrating astronomy into the national teaching curriculum, the center will be able to develop and circulate hands-on science and astronomy teaching resources to schools around the country. The center will also house hands-on laboratories, and an astronomical observatory with a portable planetarium, and internet connectivity so that connections can be made with science centers worldwide.

“We’re excited to be taking the next step in making this unique and innovative project a sustainable reality,” said Simmons. “The need is great and a lot has already been accomplished.”

To learn more about supporting The Center for Science Education and Observatory and Telescopes to Tanzania visit the Indiegogo campaign page at

Want to Measure the Distance to the Moon Yourself? Now You Can!

The dazzling full moon sets behind the Very Large Telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert in this photo released June 7, 2010 by the European Southern Observatory. The moon appears larger than normal due to an optical illusion of perspective. Image Credit: Gordon Gillet, ESO.

Astronomy is a discipline pursued at a distance. And yet, actually measuring that last word — distance — can be incredibly tricky, even if we set our sights as nearby as the Moon.

But now astronomers from the University of Antioquia, Colombia, have devised a clever method that allows citizen scientists to measure the Moon’s distance with only their digital camera and smartphone.

“Today a plethora of advanced and accessible technological devices such as smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and precise clocks, is opening a new door to the realm of ‘do-it-yourself-science’ and from there to the possibility of measuring the local Universe by oneself,” writes lead author Jorge Zuluaga in his recently submitted paper.

While ancient astronomers devised clever methods to measure the local Universe, it took nearly two millennia before we finally perfected the distance to the Moon. Now, we can bounce powerful lasers off the mirrors placed on the Lunar surface by the Apollo Astronauts. The amount of time it takes for the laser beam to return to Earth gives an incredibly precise measurement of the Moon’s distance, within a few centimeters.

But this modern technique is “far from the realm and technological capacities of amateur astronomers and nonscientist citizens,” writes Zuluaga. In order to bring the local Universe into the hands of citizen scientists, Zuluaga and colleagues have devised an easy method to measure the distance to the Moon.

The trick is in observing how the apparent size of the Moon changes with time.

As the moon rises its distance to an observer on the surface of the Earth is slightly reduced.  Image Credit: Zuluaga et al.
As the moon rises its distance to an observer on the surface of the Earth is slightly reduced.
Image Credit: Zuluaga et al.

While the Moon might seem larger, and therefore closer, when it’s on the horizon than when it’s in the sky — it’s actually the opposite. The distance from the Moon to any observer on Earth decreases as the Moon rises in the sky. It’s more distant when it’s on the horizon than when it’s at the Zenith. Note: the Moon’s distance to the center of the Earth remains approximately constant throughout the night.

The direct consequence of this is that the angular size of the moon is larger — by as much as 1.7 percent — when it’s at the Zenith than when it’s on the horizon. While this change is far too small for our eyes to detect, most modern personal cameras have now reached the resolution capable of capturing the difference.

So with a good camera, a smart phone and a little trig you can measure the distance to the Moon yourself. Here’s how:

1.) Step outside on a clear night when there’s a full Moon. Set your camera up on a tripod, pointing at the Moon.

2.) With every image of the Moon you’ll need to know the Moon’s approximate elevation. Most smartphones have various apps that allow you to measure the camera’s angle based on the tilt of the phone. By aligning the phone with the camera you can measure the elevation of the Moon accurately.

3.) For every image you’ll need to measure the apparent diameter of the Moon in pixels, seeing an increase as the Moon rises higher in the sky.

4.) Lastly, the Moon’s distance can be measured from only two images (of course the more images the better you beat down any error) using this relatively simple equation:

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 11.47.25 AM

where d(t) is the distance from the Moon to your location on Earth, RE is the radius of the Earth, ht(t) is the elevation of the Moon for your second image, α(t)
is the relative apparent size of the Moon, or the apparent size of the Moon in your second image divided by the initial apparent size of the Moon in your first image and ht,0 is the initial elevation of the Moon for your first image.

So with a few pictures and a little math, you can measure the distance to the Moon.

“Our aim here is not to provide an improved measurement of a well-known astronomical quantity, but rather to demonstrate how the public could be engaged in scientific endeavors and how using simple instrumentation and readily available technological devices such as smartphones and digital cameras, any person can measure the local Universe as ancient astronomers did,” writes Zuluaga.

The paper has been submitted to the American Journal of Physics and is available for download here.

Kickstarting the Youngest Astronomers with “Universe in a Box”

Children enjoy a view through a telescope at an astronomy event in Rochester, Illinois. Photo by Nancy Atkinson.

Most children are naturally interested in science. And if you’ve ever heard a five-year-old recite complicated dinosaur names, or all the planets in the Solar System (possibly with a passionate plea on behalf of poor Pluto!), you will know that when it comes to children and science, dinosaurs and astronomy lead the field.

I don’t know about paleontologists, but astronomers are investing serious time and effort to build on children’s fascination with the universe. Probably the most successful program of this kind is “Universe Awareness” (UNAWE), aimed at bringing astronomy to children aged 4 to 10 – and in particular to children in underprivileged communities. To help teachers and educators bring astronomy to their kindergarten and elementary school classrooms, UNAWE created a teaching kit: “Universe in a Box,” with materials for over 40 age-appropriate astronomy-related activities.

UNAWE has built 1,000 of these boxes, subjected them to intensive field-testing in classrooms around the world, and have now begun a kickstarter campaign to raise (at least) $15,000 to ship many of the boxes to underprivileged communities around the world, and to provide training for teachers and educators on how to use the boxes to maximum effect. Here’s what they have to say:

I freely admit to being biased – I work at Haus der Astronomie, a center for astronomy education and outreach in Germany, where Cecilia Scorza and Natalie Fischer, two astronomers-turned-outreach-scientists, developed the precursor for “Universe in a box”, including many of the hands-on activities (in cooperation with the local volunteer association Astronomieschule e.V., to give credit where it’s due). And I’m proud that George Miley, Pedro Russo and the UNAWE team (which includes Cecilia and Natalie) have taken this idea and turned it into a truly global resource. I’ve seen the “Universe in a box” work its magic (pardon: its science) on numerous children who’ve come to visit our center – and have heard many good things from educators around the world who are using the box.

So please help the UNAWE team to get the boxes where they belong – out into the classrooms! Also, help them help teachers and educators to make optimal use of the boxes.

The kickstarter currently stands at a bit over $8,000 of their $15,000 goal. It runs until Tuesday, June 10, 2014, at 5 am EDT.

Here’s the kickstarter link again.

10-Year-Old Boy Discovers a 600 Million Year-Old Supernova

Canadian Nathan Gray (right) is likely the youngest person to discover a supernova. The supernova candidate (left) is probably located some 600 million light-years away (image from the ARO--Dave Lane). Follow-up observations will soon be acquired to confirm the supernova's class and nature.

Young Canadian Nathan Gray, age 10, has discovered a supernova candidate in the field of the galaxy designated PGC 61330, which lies in the constellation of Draco (the dragon).

Nathan made the discovery while scanning astronomical images taken by Dave Lane, who runs the Abbey Ridge Observatory (ARO) which is stationed in Nova Scotia.  Incidentally, Nathan may unseat his older sister, Kathryn Aurora Gray, as the youngest supernova discoverer by a mere 33 days.

Nothing is visible at the location of the supernova candidate in prior images of the field taken over the past two years, or Digitized Palomar Sky Survey images.

Kathryn Aurora Gray garnered worldwide fame when she discovered a supernova in the galaxy designated UGC 3378 (see the Universe Today article by Nancy Atkinson). The discovery eventually earned her an audience with astronauts such as Neil Armstrong (shown below).

Kathryn Aurora Gray discovery of a supernova earned her the chance to meet Neil Armstrong, Bill Anders (Apollo 8), Victor Gorbakto, and Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 & 13).
Kathryn Aurora Gray’s discovery of a supernova earned her the chance to meet Neil Armstrong, Bill Anders (Apollo 8), Victor Gorbakto, and Jim Lovell (Apollo 8 & 13) (image credit: P. Gray/RASC).

Caroline Moore held the record prior to Kathryn as the youngest person to discover a supernova (Caroline was 14 at the time). Caroline subsequently had the honor of meeting President Obama at the White House (see the video below).

Supernova are immense explosions linked to the evolutionary end-state of certain stars. The explosions are so energetic that they can be observed in distant galaxies. Indeed, Nathan’s supernova could be some 600 million light years distant.  Gazing into space affords humanity the opportunity to peer back in time. Despite the (finite) speed of light being a remarkable 300000 km/s, the light-rays must travel over “astronomical” distances.

There are several different classes of supernovae. For example, Type II supernovae are associated with larger mass stars. The Sun will not terminate as a supernova, but may potentially evolve into a standard (or not) planetary nebula (see the Universe Today post “Astronomers Hint that our Sun won’t Terminate as the Typical Planetary Nebula”).

Nathan’s discovery has been posted on the International Astronomical Union’s site, and its presence confirmed by US and Italian-based observers. Its provisional name is: PSN J18032459+7013306, and to get an official supernova designation a large telescope needs to confirm the unique supernova light signature (via a spectrum).  Is the target a bona fide supernova?

“Given no motion, large distance from the galactic plane (ie. not likely a nova), and several optical confirmations, as well as its very close angular proximity to a faint galaxy, it is a supernova at any reasonable certainty,” said Lane, an astronomer in the Dept. of Astronomy & Physics at Saint Mary’s University, as well as the director of the Burke-Gaffney and Abbey Ridge astronomical observatories. “A significant fraction of
the supernova discoveries these days are not observed spectrographically due to the sheer number of them vs. telescope time.”

Nathan Gray is the son of Paul and Susan Gray.

*2013 10 31.9053 – update from the IAU: SN to be confirmed in PGC 61330 detected with 3 x 3 min images (exp 9 min). Astrometry: RA 18 03 24.12 Dec +70 13 26.4 (ref stars UCAC2) Photometry: 17.00CR +/-0.02 (USNO A2R Ref stars 163R, 170R, 172R, 173R). Measure on unfiltered image. Observer and measurer: Xavier Bros, ANYSLLUM OBSERVATORY, Ager, Spain. T-350mm f4.6. Link to image and further information:

Kids Book Review: “Beyond the Solar System”

It is probably a safe bet that even as children, Universe Today readers gazed at the night sky with awe and wonder. Did you wish upon the first star light, star bright in the sky? Cultures across time have spun tales around constellations – images projected on the night’s expanse based on our perceptions. As science and technology progressed we realized the vast depths of space are truly full of wonder. There’s an incredible array of amazing things to be discovered, researched and understood.

Beyond the Solar System: Exploring Galaxies, Black Holes, Alien Planets, and More; A History with 21 Activities by Mary Kay Carson is an informative and detailed book for both young and old alike. It is written for children and for the inquisitive child within us. The attention grabbing chapters span from space-time tricks and quasars to frothy galaxies. Even as an adult, I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this collection.

Find out how you can win a copy of this book here!

The images within the chapters are well appointed. For example, at the beginning of the book during a journey from prehistory-1600 you’ll find a fantastic Library of Congress image of the Great Bear constellation, joined by the British Library’s ancient Chinese Star Map, that dates back to the 600’s A.D. This reviewer will definitely be trying some of the activities explained among the chapters such as “Make a 3-D Starscape” found on page 32. This craft project demonstrates the artificial grouping we’ve given our constellations and shows that they are actually comprised of stars great distances from each other and us.

Perhaps the best review of this book comes from my 8 year old daughter. For the past week, she has been reading this book in the car while travelling to school. A recent morning’s question from the back seat was “What’s a pulsar?” She’s excited to try all of the activities; first up will be making a radio picture found on page 82 or turning a friend into a pulsar by spinning them in a chair with two flashlights on page 89. In addition to her “two thumbs” up eagerness to read this every morning, she simply stated “I love this book.”

I extend a thank you to the author for creating a fun, educational STEM source that attracted not only the attention of my science oriented 14 year old boy, but also my daughter, who is as equally bright, capable and curious about the world around her.

Chaos and Education at 120,000 feet for Camilla the Rubber Chicken

The helium balloon pops at the apex of the flight on March 10, 2012. Credit: Earth to Sky-Bishop CA


In my travels, I’ve had the pleasure of regularly meeting up with Camilla the Rubber Chicken, the social media maven and mascot for NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. But lately I’ve been seeing here virtually everywhere — on television, splashed across all sorts of websites, and even in my local newspaper. What Camilla does is try to capture the imagination of students and get them interested in space and science. With her latest adventures she’s done just that, and now captured the attention of people all around the world, too.

What did she do? She flew to the stratosphere — about 36,000 meters (120,000 ft) up — on a helium balloon right into the throes of one of the most intense solar radiation storms since 2003.

“I am still glowing,” Camilla joked.

Inflating Camilla's ride. Image courtesy Bishop Union High School.

Students from Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky group spearheaded the flights, as Camilla actually flew twice — once on March 3 before the radiation storm and again on March 10 while the storm was in full swing. This would give the students a basis for comparison of the radiation environment.

On board with Camilla was a payload of four cameras, a cryogenic thermometer two GPS trackers, radiation detectors, Seven insects and two-dozen sunflower seeds (fittingly, the variety known as “Sunspot” — Helianthus annuus) all inside a modified department store lunchbox.

“We equipped Camilla with sensors to measure the radiation,” says Sam Johnson, 16, of Bishop Union High School’s Earth to Sky student group. “At the apex of our flight, the payload was above 99 percent of Earth’s atmosphere.”

Camilla made it back in one piece, but unfortunately, the insects died.

“This story is really about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) and about these kids from Bishop, California who have worked really hard in developing the mission, planning it, and then executing it,” Camilla told Universe Today. “They had to overcome set-backs, review their processes, come up with better solutions and implement them. For them it was a great hands-on learning experience and they are and can be proud of their accomplishments.”

NASA knows that these kinds of programs, where kids can get involved in hands-on research, are very important for introducing and keeping students interested in STEM subjects, important areas of study for future NASA scientists and engineers.

“As you know, I not only want to educate about our Sun and space weather, but I want to inspire and show kids (and adults) how much fun science and engineering really is,” Camilla said via email. “Team SDO’s goal has always been to encourage more girls into STEM careers and seeing that this team had several girls on the team was just the most rewarding.”

Students prepare Camilla for her ride into the stratosphere. Image courtesy Bishop Union High School.

The video of the balloon popping and part of Camilla’s flight:

During the two-and-a-half-hour flights, Camilla spent approximately 90 minutes in the stratosphere where temperatures ( -40 to -60 C, -40 to -76 F) and air pressures (1 percent sea level) are akin to those on the planet Mars. The balloon popped, as planned, at an altitude of about 40 km (25 miles) and Camilla parachuted safely back to Earth. The entire payload was recovered intact from a landing site in the Inyo Mountains.

The fifth grade students who assisted with the flight have planted the sunflower seeds to see if radiated seeds produce flowers any different from seeds that stayed behind on Earth. They also pinned the corpses of the insects to a black “Foamboard of Death,” a rare collection of bugs that have been to the edge of space.

Meanwhile, Camilla’s radiation badges have been sent to a commercial laboratory for analysis.

The students say they are looking forward to the data and perhaps sending Camilla back for more.

“I truly believe that text books will always be around,” Camilla said, “but real-life hands-on projects like these are wonderful, and will become more popular.”

Here’s a video of an X-class flare from sunspot AR1429, which unleashed more than 50 solar flares during the first two weeks of March:

Read more about Camilla’s adventures, or our previous article, How a Rubber Chicken is Spreading the Word About NASA’s Space Missions and Science.

Get Great Astronomy Apps and Support Astronomers Without Borders

Screenshot for Android, telescope control for SkySafari3. Courtesy AWB


Celebrate the last two weeks of Global Astronomy Month and get a great price on the very popular SkySafari 3 apps for Apple and Android mobile devices and Mac OS X. Not only will you get an app that has been called a ‘game-changer’ for astronomy software, but during a special promotion, 30% of proceeds from all SkySafari sales will be donated to Astronomers Without Borders to support their wonderful programs.

All three versions of SkySafari 3 — Basic, Plus and Pro – are now at significant discounts, and if you’ve been considering purchasing SkySafari, now is the time, especially since you can support the great work of Astronomers Without Borders at the same time.

SkySafari 3 – $1.99 (regularly $2.99). 120,000 stars and 220 star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies. Solar system’s major planets and moons using NASA spacecraft imagery, 20 asteroids and comets.

SkySafari 3 Plus – $11.99 (regularly $14.99). Wired or wireless telescope control with accessories sold separately. 2.5 million stars, 31,000 deep sky objects (with entire NGC/IC catalog), over 4,000 asteroids, comets, and satellites.

SkySafari 3 Pro – $39.99 (regularly $59.99). Wired or wireless telescope control with accessories sold separately. 15 million stars (most of any astronomy app), 740,000 galaxies to 18th magnitude, over 550,000 solar system objects including every known comet and asteroid.

If you don’t need the SkySafari app, please consider donating to AWB.

Mike Simmons, who leads AWB, told Universe Today that this astronomy outreach organization really could use financial help.

“We do probably a half-million dollars in programs each year based on the hard work of passionate amateur astronomers and educators around the world,” he said, all on way less than $25,000 a year.

“This can’t be sustained, of course, and our programs — and everyone’s expectations of us — continue to grow,” Simmons wrote. “This is really, really important to us. 2012 presents many opportunities and we’re working on them. But we need to convert some of the passion we have in abundance to income to keep it going. If we can’t do it this year then I’m not sure we can do it in the future.”

Another way to help AWB is to purchase special eclipse glasses for the upcoming eclipse and the Venus transit – for which AWB has big plans for helping people around the world observe this very infrequent event.

Also, there is the a program allowing people to buy a quality small refractor and have a second one donated to a club or school in a developing country.

For more information, check out Astronomers Without Borders and the SkySafari 3 app sale, the eclipse glasses and the BOGO for a small refractor telescope for you and a needy school.

Thanks in advance for your support of a great organization!

The Physics of Angry Birds In Space

Leave it to Mr. Wizard, a.k.a. astronaut Don Pettit on board the International Space Station, to give a detailed demonstration to explain how physics works in space, including demonstrating trajectories in microgravity by catapulting an Angry Bird through the space station. The video coincides with the release of a new Angry Birds game, “Angry Birds Space,” and the game’s developers have incorporated concepts of human space exploration into the new game to provide a little education along with the latest version of the popular time-waster game, which was produced in cooperation with NASA. From the weightlessness of space to the gravity wells of nearby planets, players can use physics as they explore the various levels of the game set both on planets and in microgravity.

Continue reading “The Physics of Angry Birds In Space”

RoboScopes – Real Armchair Astronomy

The Faulkes Telescope. Credit: Faulkes Telescope/LCOGT


Using and getting the most out of robotic astronomy

Whilst nothing in the field of amateur astronomy beats the feeling of being outside looking up at the stars, the inclement weather many of us have to face at various times of year, combined with the task of setting up and then packing away equipment on a nightly basis, can be a drag. Those of us fortunate enough to have observatories don’t face that latter issue, but still face the weather and usually the limits of our own equipment and skies.

Another option to consider is using a robotic telescope. From the comfort of your home you can make incredible observations, take outstanding astrophotos, and even make key contributions to science!

The main elements which make robotic telescopes appealing to many amateur astronomers are based around 3 factors. The first is that usually, the equipment being offered is generally vastly superior to that which the amateur has in their home observatory. Many of the robotic commercial telescope systems, have large format mono CCD cameras, connected to high precision computer controlled mounts, with superb optics on top, typically these setups start in the $20-$30,000 price bracket and can run up in to the millions of dollars.

A look at the Faulkes Telescope South inside. Credit: Faulkes Telescope/LCOGT

Combined with usually well defined and fluid workflow processes which guide even a novice user through the use of the scope and then acquisition of images, automatically handling such things as dark and flat fields, makes it a much easier learning curve for many as well, with many of the scopes specifically geared for early grade school students.

Screenshot of the Faulkes Telescope realtime interface. Credit: Faulkes Telescope/LCOGT

The second factor is geographic location. Many of the robotic sites are located in places where average rainfall is a lot lower than say somewhere like the UK or North Eastern United States for example, with places like New Mexico and Chile in particular offering almost completely clear dry skies year round. Robotic scopes tend to see more sky than most amateur setups, and as they are being controlled over the Internet, you yourself don’t even have to get cold outside in the depths of winter. The beauty of the geographic location aspect is that in some cases, you can do your astronomy during the daytime, as the scopes may be on the other side of the world.

iTelescope systems are located all over the globe. Credit: iTelescope project

The third is ease of use, as it’s nothing more than a reasonably decent laptop, and solid broadband connection that’s required. The only thing you need worry about is your internet connection dropping, not your equipment failing to work. With scopes like the Faulkes or Liverpool Telescopes, ones I use a lot, they can be controlled from something as modest as a netbook or even an Android/iPad/iPhone, easily. The issues with CPU horsepower usually comes down to the image processing after you have taken your pictures.

Software applications like the brilliant Maxim DL by Diffraction Limited which is commonly used for image post processing in amateur and even professional astronomy, handles the FITS file data which robotic scopes will deliver. This is commonly the format images are saved in with professional observatories, and the same applies with many home amateur setups and robotic telescopes. This software requires a reasonably fast PC to work efficiently, as does the other stalwart of the imaging community, Adobe Photoshop. There are some superb and free applications which can be used instead of these two bastions of the imaging fraternity, like the excellent Deep Sky stacker, and IRIS, along with the interestingly named “GIMP” which is variant on the Photoshop theme, but free to use.

Some people may say just handling image data or a telescope over the internet detracts from real astronomy, but it’s how professional astronomers work day in day out, usually just doing data reduction from telescopes located on the other side of the world. Professionals can wait years to get telescope time, and even then rather than actually being a part of the imaging process, will submit imaging runs to observatories, and wait for the data to roll in. (If anyone wants to argue this fact…just say “Try doing eyepiece astronomy with the Hubble”)

The process of using and imaging with a robotic telescope still requires a level of skill and dedication to guarantee a good night of observing, be it for pretty pictures or real science or both.

Location Location Location

The location for a robotic telescope is critical as if you want to image some of the wonders of the Southern Hemisphere, which those of us in the UK or North America will never see from home, then you’ll need to pick a suitably located scope. Time of day is also important for access, unless the scope system allows an offline queue management approach, whereby you schedule it to do your observations for you and just wait for the results. Some telescopes utilise a real time interface, where you literally control the scope live from your computer, typically through a web browser interface. So depending on where in the world it is, you may be in work, or it may be at a very unhealthy hour in the night before you can access your telescope, it’s worth considering this when you decide which robotic system you wish to be a part of.

Telescopes like the twin Faulkes 2-metre scopes, which are based on the Hawaiian island of Maui, atop a mountain, and Siding Spring, Australia, next to the world famous Anglo Australian Observatory, operate during usual school hours in the UK, which means night time in the locations where the scopes live. This is perfect for children in western Europe who wish to use research grade professional technology from the classroom, though the Faulkes scopes are also used by schools and researchers in Hawaii.

The type of scope/camera you choose to use, will ultimately also determine what it is you image. Some robotic scopes are configured with wide field large format CCD’s connected to fast, low focal ratio telescopes. These are perfect for creating large sky vistas encompassing nebulae and larger galaxies like Messier 31 in Andromeda. For imaging competitions like the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, these wide field scopes are perfect for the beautiful skyscapes they can create.

Scopes like the Faulkes Telescope North, even though it has a huge 2m (almost the same size as the one on the Hubble Space Telescope) mirror, is configured for smaller fields of view, literally only around 10 arcminutes, which will nicely fit in objects like Messier 51, the Whirpool Galaxy, but would take many separate images to image something like the full Moon (If Faulkes North were set up for that, which it’s not). It’s advantage is aperture size and immense CCD sensitivity. Typically our team using them is able to image a magnitude +23 moving object (comet or asteroid) in under a minute using a red filter too!

A field of view with a scope like the twin Faulkes scopes, which are owned and operated byLCOGT is perfect for smaller deep sky objects and my own interests which are comets and asteroids.Many other research projects such as exoplanets and the study of variable stars are conducted using these telescopes.Many schools start out imaging nebulae, smaller galaxies and globular clusters, with our aim at the Faulkes Telescope Project office, to quickly get students moving on to more science based work, whilst keeping it fun. For imagers, mosaic approaches are possible to create larger fields, but this obviously will take up more imaging and telescope slew time.

Each robotic system has its own set of learning curves, and each can suffer from technical or weather related difficulties, like any complex piece of machinery or electronic system. Knowing a bit about the imaging process to begin with, sitting in on other’s observing sessions on things like Slooh, all helps. Also make sure you know your target field of view/size on the sky (usually in either right ascension and declination) or some systems have a “guided tour mode” with named objects, and make sure you can be ready to move the scope to it as quickly as possible, to get imaging. With the commercial robotic scopes, time really is money.

Global Rent-A-Scope interface

Magazines like Astronomy Now in the UK, as well as Astronomy and Sky and Telescope in the United States and Australia are excellent resources for finding out more, as they regularly feature robotic imaging and scopes in their articles. Online forums like and also have thousands of active members, many of whom regularly use robotic scopes and can give advice on imaging and use, and there are dedicated groups for robotic astronomy like the Online Astronomical Society. Search engines will also give useful information on what is available as well.

To get access to them, most of the robotic scopes require a simple sign up process, and then the user can either have limited free access, which is usually an introductory offer, or just start to pay for time. The scopes come in various sizes and quality of camera, the better they are, usually the more you pay. For education and school users as well as astronomical societies, The Faulkes Telescope (for schools) and the Bradford Robotic scope both offer free access, as does the NASA funded Micro Observatory project. Commercial ones like iTelescope, Slooh and Lightbuckets provide a range of telescopes and imaging options, with a wide variety of price models from casual to research grade instrumentation and facilities.

So what about my own use of Robotic Telescopes?

Personally I use mainly the Faulkes North and South scopes, as well as the Liverpool La Palma Telescope. I have worked with the Faulkes Telescope Project team now for a few years, and it’s a real honour to have such access to research grade intrumentation. Our team also use the iTelescope network when objects are difficult to obtain using the Faulkes or Liverpool scopes, though with smaller apertures, we’re more limited in our target choice when it comes to very faint asteroid or comet type objects.

After having been invited to meetings in an advisory capacity for Faulkes, late in 2011 I was appointed pro am program manager, co-ordinating projects with amateurs and other research groups. With regards to public outreach I have presented my work at conferences and public outreach events for Faulkes and we’re about to embark on a new and exciting project with the European Space Agency whom I work for also as a science writer.

My use of Faulkes and the Liverpool scopes is primarily for comet recovery, measurement (dust/coma photometry and embarking on spectroscopy) and detection work, those icy solar system interlopers being my key interest. In this area, I co-discovered Comet C2007/Q3 splitting in 2010, and worked closely with the amateur observing program managed by NASA for comet 103P, where my images were featured in National Geographic, The Times, BBC Television and also used by NASA at their press conference for the 103P pre-encounter event at JPL.

The 2m mirrors have huge light grasp, and can reach very faint magnitudes in very little time. When attempting to find new comets or recover orbits on existing ones, being able to image a moving target at magnitude 23 in under 30s is a real boon. I am also fortunate to work alongside two exceptional people in Italy, Giovanni Sostero and Ernesto Guido, and we maintain a blog of our work, and I am a part of the CARA research group working on comet coma and dust measurements, with our work in professional research papers such as the Astrophysical Journal Letters and Icarus.

The Imaging Process

When taking the image itself, the process starts really before you have access to the scope. Knowing the field of view, what it is you want to achieve is critical, as is knowing the capabilities of the scope and camera in question, and importantly, whether or not the object you want to image is visible from the location/time you’ll be using it.

First thing I would do if starting out again is look through the archives of the telescope, which are usually freely available, and see what others have imaged, how they have imaged in terms of filters, exposure times etc, and then match that against your own targets.

Ideally, given that in many cases, time will be costly, make sure that if you’re aiming for a faint deep sky object with tenuous nebulosity, you don’t pick a night with a bright Moon in the sky, even with narrowband filters, this can hamper the final image quality, and that your choice of scope/camera will in fact image what you want it to. Remember that others may also want to use the same telescopes, so plan ahead and book early. When the Moon is bright, many of the commercial robotic scope vendors offer discounted rates, which is great if you’re imaging something like globular clusters maybe, which aren’t as affected by the moonlight (as say a nebula would be)

Forward planning is usually essential, knowing that your object is visible and not too close to any horizon limits which the scope may impose, ideally picking objects as high up as possible, or rising to give you plenty of imaging time. Once that’s all done, then following the scope’s imaging process depends on which one you choose, but with something like Faulkes, it’s as simple as selecting the target/FOV, slewing the scope, setting the filter, and then exposure time and then waiting for the image to come in.

The number of shots taken depends on the time you have. Usually when imaging a comet using Faulkes I will try to take between 10 and 15 images to detect the motion, and give me enough good signal for the scientific data reduction which follows. Always remember though, that you’re usually working with vastly superior equipment than you have at home, and the time it takes to image an object using your home setup will be a lot less with a 2m telescope. A good example is that a full colour high resolution image of something like the Eagle Nebula can be obtained in a matter of minutes on Faulkes, in narrowband, something which would usually take hours on a typical backyard telescope.

For imaging a non moving target, the more shots in full colour or with your chosen filter (Hydrogen Alpha being a commonly used one with Faulkes for nebula) you can get the better. When imaging in colour, the three filters on the telescope itself are grouped into an RGB set, so you don’t need to set up each colour band. I’d usually add a luminance layer with H-Alpha if it’s an emission nebula, or maybe a few more red images if it’s not for luminance. Once the imaging run is complete, the data is usually placed on a server for you to collect, and then after downloading the FITS files, combine the images using Maxim (or other suitable software) and then on in to something like Photoshop to make the final colour image. The more images you take, the better the quality of the signal against the background noise, and hence a smoother and more polished final shot.

Between shots the only thing that will usually change will be filters, unless tracking a moving target, and possibly the exposure time, as some filters take less time to get the requisite amount of light. For example with a H-Alpha/OIII/SII image, you typically image for a lot longer with SII as the emission with many objects is weaker in this band, whereas many deep sky nebula emit strongly in the H-Alpha.

The Image Itself

NGC 6302 taken by Thomas Mills High School with the Faulkes Telescope

As with any imaging of deep sky objects, don’t be afraid to throw away poor quality sub frames (the shorter exposures which go to make up the final long exposure when stacked). These could be affected by cloud, satellite trails or any number of factors, such as the autoguider on the telescope not working correctly. Keep the good shots, and use those to get as good a RAW stacked data frame as you can. Then it’s all down to post processing tools in products like Maxim/Photoshop/Gimp, where you’d adjust the colours, levels, curves and possibly use plug ins to sharpen up the focus, or reduce noise. If it’s pure science your interested in, you’ll probably skip most of those steps and just want good, calibrated image data (dark and flat field subtracted as well as bias)

The processing side is very important when taking shots for aesthetic value, it seems obvious, but many people can overdo it with image processing, lessening the impact and/or value of the original data. Usually most amateur imagers spend more time on processing than actual imaging, but this does vary, it can be from hours to literally days doing tweaks. Typically when processing an image taken robotically, the dark and flat field calibration are done. First thing I do is access the datasets as FITS files, and bring those in to Maxim DL. Here I will combine and adjust the histogram on the image, possible running multiple iterations of a de-convolution algorithm if the start points are not as tight (maybe due to seeing issues that night).

Once the images are tightened up and then stretched, I will save them out as FITS files, and using the free FITS Liberator application bring them in to Photoshop. Here, additional noise reduction and contrast/level and curve adjustments will be made on each channel, running a set of actions known as Noels actions (a suite of superb actions by Noel Carboni, one of the worlds foremost imaging experts) can also enhance the final individual red green and blue channels (and the combined colour one).

Then, I will composite the images using layers into a colour final shot, adjusting this for colour balance and contrast. Possibly running a focus enhancement plug in and further noise reduction. Then publish them via flickr/facebook/twitter and/or submit to magazines/journals or scientific research papers depending on the final aim/goals.

Serendipity can be a wonderful thing

I got in to this quite by accident myself…. In March 2010, I had seen a posting on a newsgroup that Comet C/2007 Q3, a magnitude 12-14 object at the time, was passing near to a galaxy, and would make an interesting wide field side by side shot. That weekend, using my own observatory, I imaged the comet over several nights, and noticed a distinct change in the tail and brightness of the comet over two nights in particular.

Comet C/2007 Q3. Credit: Nick Howes

A member of the BAA (British Astronomical Association), seeing my images, then asked if I would submit them for publication. I decided however to investigate this brightening a bit further, and as I had access to the Faulkes that week, decided to point the 2m scope at this comet, to see if anything unusual was taking place. The first images came in, and I immediately, after loading them in to Maxim DL and adjusting the histogram, noticed that a small fuzzy blob appeared to be tracking the comet’s movement just behind it. I measured the separation as only a few arc-seconds, and after staring at it for a few minutes, decided that it may have fragmented.

I contacted Faulkes Telescope control, who put me in touch with the BAA comet section director, who kindly logged this observation the same day. I then contacted Astronomy Now magazine, who leapt on the story and images and immediately went to press with it on their website. The following days the media furore was quite literally incredible.

Interviews with national newspapers, BBC Radio, Coverage on the BBC’s Sky at Night television show, Discovery Channel, Radio Hawaii, Ethiopia were just a few of the news/media outlets that picked up the story.. the news went global that an amateur had made a major astronomical discovery from his desk using a robotic scope. This then led on to me working with members of the AOP project with the NASA/University of Maryland EPOXI mission team on imaging and obtaining light curve data for comet 103P late in 2010, again which led to articles and images in National Geographic, The Times and even my images used by NASA in their press briefings, alongside images from the Hubble Space Telescope. Subscription requests to Faulkes Telescope Project as a result of my discoveries went up by hundreds of % from all over the world.

In summary

Robotic telescopes can be fun, they can lead to amazing things, this past year, a work experience student I was mentor for with the Faulkes Telescope Project, imaged several fields we’d assigned to her, where our team then found dozens of new and un-catalogued asteroids, and she also managed to image a comet fragmenting. Taking pretty pictures is fun, but the buzz for me comes with the real scientific research I am now engaged in, and it’s a pathway I aim to stay on probably for the rest of my astronomical lifetime. For students and people who don’t have the ability to either own a telescope due to financial or possibly location constraints, it’s a fantastic way to do real astronomy, using real equipment, and I hope, in reading this, you’re encouraged to give these fantastic robotic telescopes a try.