Autonomous robotic observatories.
This workshop was sponsored by the Institute of Astrophysics at the University of Andalucia. Almost all of the 80 or so participants were professional astronomers, from about 20 countries worldwide. Eight astronomers represented the UK and Ireland including several amateurs (see photo). In all some 50 papers (and several posters) were presented. Of the four amateurs present, three were BAA members namely myself, Tony Angel and Markus Wildi. Markus has been operating the privately-funded Vermes Observatory (some one hour's drive from his home) by remote control since the start of 2008.
The main topics discussed were robotic astronomy from a historical perspective, new hardware and software developments, real-time analysis pipelines, archiving data, telescope control systems, transient detection and classification, protocols for robotic telescope networks, standards and protocols for transient reporting, scientific results obtained by robotic observatories, global networks, education applications and future strategies.
The main objective for the workshop was to be an international forum for researchers to summarise the most recent developments and ideas in the field, with a special emphasis given to technical and observational results obtained within the last five years. The many highlights of the meeting included an introduction and brief historical perspective given by Alberto Castro Tirado, the main organiser. Dr Tirado said that about 22% of the professional robotic observatories today are primarily (but not exclusively) being used to follow up on gamma ray bursts (GRBs). Almost one-half of these robotic telescopes are less than 0.25m aperture, i.e. within the size range of most amateur telescopes, whereas only about 11% exceed 1.25m aperture. Robotic observatories use a variety of observatory control systems including AUDELA, ASCOM, RTS2, INDI, etc.
Presentations were given by representatives from many of the leading automated surveys, including Carl Akerlof of the Robotic Transient Research Experiment (ROTSE) comprising a global network of instruments, and Katarzyna Malek of the 'Pi in the Sky Observatory' project located in Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. Alexei Pozanenko of the Space Research Institute, Russian Federation, gave an interesting talk summarising various aspects of wide field surveys to capture transient events. Petr Kubanek reported on the open-source software package, RTS2 Remote Telescope System (see http://rts2.org) that he developed for complete automatic control of robotic observatories. Devices supported by RTS2 include most of the equipment used by amateur astronomers (focusers, filter wheels, most mounts and of course domes, weather stations etc.). My impression is that Dr Kubanek is willing to help anyone with the installation of this software. At present RTS2 is operating in several professional robotic observatories.
Examples of the results obtained using robotic telescopes were given by many speakers including Fraser Lewis of the OU/Cardiff University, who described an ongoing three-year monitoring programme to observe 30 low-mass X-ray binaries (LMXBs) using the 2.0m Faulkes North and Faulkes South robotic telescopes. (Some BAA members may also have heard Fraser's talk, which he also presented at the recent 2009 May meeting of the Association held at Burlington House). Monitoring of a large number of nearby stars aimed at the detection of exoplanets via stellar transit was described by Luis Cuesta of the Astrobiology Centre, Madrid.
Finally, the robotic telescope offers great potential as a convenient educational tool, one ex ample being the Bradford Robotic Telescope (BRT) used by many BAA members (see http://www.telescope.org/). In an invited talk, John Baruch described the characteristics of the telescope, which is located on Tenerife, Spain, and explained how user-friendly websites such as the BRT's enable tomorrow's scientists to learn and carry out real science.
For those interested in more details, including PDF and PowerPoint presentations, these can be viewed at the workshop's official website: http://rts2.org/malaga/ program.html
Additional comments from Tony Angel
I found the workshop both constructive and instructive. It helped that the majority of attendees have observatories that are well within the range of amateur astronomers, i.e. fairly small telescopes, photographic lenses etc., to which I could relate. Where the professionals score is in their data analysis/software capabilities and the advanced nature of the instruments attached to the telescopes.
I came away with a number of particular thoughts. The first was that this is an area where both professionals and amateurs could work together; the second was that this is an area where the BAA Instruments & Imaging Section could come to the fore by perhaps pulling together information from the relevant literature and other sources containing the technical know-how needed to construct and control robotic observatories.
Finally I thought that perhaps we amateurs are looking too hard at seeking perfection on the design side before having a go. Quite a number of the professionals took a very much 'can do' attitude using materials at hand, and were not afraid of prototyping to get things going. I am not saying that in every case this is true--there were a number of exceptions such as the Liverpool Telescope --but it may be a worthwhile exercise to write articles on the various designs, equipment and materials utilised in going 'robotic'.
Discussions on the definitions of 'robotic' failed to reach agreement though in my mind two distinct categories exist. One requires the equipment to carry out a predefined schedule of observations, which can be manually changed if required during the observation cycle. The second can do this too but would also be able to take decisions based on its observations, modify its own observing schedule and, if necessary, send a message to a user or to another observatory. In both cases, the observatory must be able to open, perform tasks and close without causing harm to the equipment or people.
Tony Angel [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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|Title Annotation:||Observers' Forum|
|Author:||Faillace, George; Angel, Tony|
|Publication:||Journal of the British Astronomical Association|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2009|
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