Friday, March 06, 2009

Robot Observatories

Lately, with Comet Lulin passing through the inner system and now Venus about to pass by Earth in their orbits, I’ve been thinking about evening objects and morning objects.

For amateur astronomers, the distinction always has been used to plan their observing sessions. Evening objects are things you stay up to view, morning objects are things you get up to view.

Traditionally, the difference has been less important to professional astronomers. Typically, professional astronomers have alternated between night mode and day mode. Professional astronomers would spend a few weeks living at an observatory in night mode, staying up all night, gathering photos or other data. Then they would take the data they gathered back to an office somewhere and switch over to day mode and live normal hours while they analyze and interpret their data. (Professionals sometimes gather so much data they have trouble remembering even what it is. There’s an interesting story at the Wolfram blog of a scientist using the most advanced scientific computing software available today just to try and remember what a certain file is on his computer: Secrets of the Universe Hiding on My Home Computer)

Last year in September I posted an excerpt from Bob Berman writing about how computer-driven telescopes might be changing the way professionals learn about the sky. [“The Ancient Art Of Knowing The Sky” ] There is another major change being caused by computer-driven telescopes. The whole issue of evening objects versus morning objects may become a thing of the past because of robot observatories. (More and more professionals use robot observatories and many amateurs are configuring their equipment along similar lines.)


The following is a true story. It sounds like the outline of a science fiction story, but it is all true.

In the early A.M. hours of January 23, 1999:

  • A satellite in Earth orbit automatically scanned an area of the sky looking for outbursts of gamma radiation. Because the satellite’s recording mechanisms were broken, a team of scientists had programmed the satellite to continuously encode its observation data into position data it constantly downloaded to tracking stations on Earth.

  • A computer on Earth programmed by a different team of scientists automatically examined the position data from the satellite, sorted out the information about possible gamma rays and evaluated the radiation data. The program decided there had been a gamma ray outburst, calculated the approximate area of the sky containing the outburst and broadcast the location over the internet to scientists studying gamma ray bursts.

  • In New Mexico, a computer in a small metal shed had begun the evening by examining sensors and concluding that the weather was fine and the sky was clear. The computer had opened the roof of the shed and started taking routine photographs of the sky. When the computer received the internet broadcast about a possible gamma ray burst, the computer abandoned its regular photography session, pointed at the area of the sky with the possible gamma ray event and began taking photographs.

  • The whole sequence took less than ten seconds. [Seconds is correct!] From the time the satellite observed the area of the sky with a possible radiation event, to the observatory in New Mexico taking its first photo, approximately six seconds elapsed.

  • The very first photographs of the visible component of a gamma ray burst the human race ever acquired were acquired with no human intervention of any kind. The photographs were acquired by a group of robots talking among themselves and doing their jobs.


There is an interesting human side to this robot story.

The robot observatory in New Mexico was designed and built by a scientist named Dr. Carl Akerlof. (He’s a physicist, not an astronomer, but nobody’s perfect.) When Dr. Akerlof first planned a robot observatory he intended to work with a friend and colleague named Dr. Hye-Sook Park. They ended up squabbling bitterly—apparently over funding—and went their separate ways.

Dr. Hye-Sook Park built her own robot observatory in California. Dr. Akerlof built his robot observatory in New Mexico.

When the press interviewed Dr. Akerlof about his great success, he admitted that when he first reviewed his data and realized his equipment had accomplished something wonderful, instead of thinking only about how the data would advance the science of gamma ray bursts, one of the first things he did was to check the weather in California and note that it had rained over Dr. Park’s robot observatory and her equipment had gathered no data at all.

When the press interviewed Dr. Park, her first comment wasn’t about how Dr. Akerlof’s success would advance the science of gamma ray bursts. Dr. Park’s first comment was to bemoan her bad luck of getting rained out and to tell the press that her robot observatory was much better than Dr. Akerlof’s and if she hadn’t been rained out her robot observatory would have acquired three times as much data as Dr. Akerlof’s robot observatory.



Here is the NASA press release about Dr. Akerlof’s incredible photographs.

Here is the website of Dr. Akerlof’s (updated!) robot observatory.

Here is the website of Dr. Park’s (also updated!) robot observatory.

Here is a cool book, “Flash! The Hunt for the Biggest Explosions in the Universe,” by Govert Schilling, that talks about gamma ray bursts and contains more data about both Dr. Akerlof’s work and Dr. Park’s work.

Here is the Wikipedia page on gamma ray bursts.

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