January 19, 2011
Appearing in this week’s New Scientist (15 January 2011, pp 20-21) is a story with the provocative title: “Rise of the Robot Astronomers.” The story places a great deal of emphasis on the growing role of Artificial Intelligence for the detection of transients and for the automated detection of outliers indicative of rarer objects such as quasars and the role of automated telescopes to support rapid follow-up imaging and analysis. Here are some of the highlights:
- Forthcoming sky surveys such as the LSST will detect 100,000 transients every night!
- The Palomar Transit Factory is a successful effort to automate the detection, classification, cross-validation of transient phenomena, as well as supporting triggers for robotic follow-up observations by other observatories.
- The Heterogeneous Telescope Network (HTN) consortium is also working on software languages for communication between multiple robotic observatories including NASA’s SWIFT satellite and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Described as a “chatroom” for robotic telescopes.
- Robotic observatories are also ideal for remote locations. For example, the Himalayan Chandra Telescope (HCT) operates at 4500m altitude and is part of the COSMOGRAIL (Cosmological Monitoring of Gravitational Lenses) initiative.
Here is a brief video describing the Palomar Transient Factory and how discoveries and follow-up observations are coordinated across sites around the world. To date, the PTF has discovered nearly 1,000 supernovae.
September 2, 2010
Iconic optical image of the Eagle Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, showing the ‘elephant trunk’ columns protruding from the molecular cloud, illuminated by nearby young stars, but with the youngest objects buried inside. Right: SCUBA image at 450 μm showing thermal dust emission, unveiling the cold cores where the earliest stages of star formation can be studied. (Image and text from Scott et al., 2010 - see below)
The study of the Universe at submillimeter wavelengths (200 μm to 1 mm) enables astronomers to study cold dusty regions such as are found around newly forming star systems in both the Milky way and other galaxies. Though shrouded in debris disks, submillimeter astronomy can probe deep within to study the underlying sources of thermal radiation. Recently, Scott et al. posted a review of submillimeter astronomy in support of the Canadian Long Range Plan (Canada’s version of the Decadal Survey). They write:
A full grasp of galaxy evolution requires understanding star formation in detail, but there are still many unsolved issues in the star formation problem. The youngest stars form in dusty cores – findnig them demands wide submm surveys, with high resolution continuum and spectroscopic follow-up to probe accretion, outflows and disks….Details of the formation, structure and evolution of stars and thstellar systems are still poorly understood, largely because of the physical complexity, involving accretion, atomic and molecular cooling, astrochemistry, dynamics, and magnetic fields. Theoretical modelling struggles to keep pace with the quality of the data, and observations must erach the scale of the protostars themselves – ultimately requiring space-based interferometers.
The paper further describes the role of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) in supporting a broad range of submm survey initiatives, and touches briefly upon some of the unique computational challenges for map-making at submm wavelengths.
August 31, 2010
In Science Magazine this week (27 August 2010, Vol 329) an essay appears by M. Jordan Raddick and Alexander Szalay (Johns Hopkins) emphasizing the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) as an educational tool. They point out, for example, a number of the educational features of the SDSS web site including:
- Providing an introduction to the science enabled by the survey
- Enabling web-enabled public access via SkyServer, including a collaborative analysis feature that I was not aware of called CasJobs.
- The availability of projects and tutorials aimed at students in middle school through college.
- The use of SDSS data in Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope, Google Sky, and as the image data source for citizen science projects like Galaxy Zoo.
Raddick and Szalay write:
SkyServer tools allow students, teachers, and the public to view astronomy data. SkyServer projects allow learners to use these data to recreate famous discoveries in modern astronomy, such as detecting the expansion of the universe. Other interfaces, such as Google Sky and World Wide Telescope, permit the public to view SDSS data in relation to other astronomical data sets. Galaxy Zoo allows online volunteers to contribute to the advancement of science. Together, these sites are tapping into the hunger and enthusiasm of members of the general public to engage with scientific research, and are helping to make science more democratic.
For this work, they have been awarded this month’s winner of Science Magazine’s Spore* Series for Online Resources in Education for which they are deserving wholehearted congratulations!