Astronomy Day: A robot telescope lurks at AU…
Having a relatively remote and rural campus can sometimes pose challenges, but there are also benefits. For International Astronomy Day on May 11, 2019, I want to highlight one of the ways that having a remote location gives us an edge.
Athabasca University’s location in rural Alberta gives it a unique advantage for astronomy. Just stepping outside on a dark clear night, one sees the wonders of the sky in all their glory. Most campuses, located in cities, drown in “light pollution,” while the outskirts of Athabasca remain relatively dark.
To fully benefit from the dark view of the universe, AU has a 0.4-metre-diameter robotic telescope in a secluded area of the campus. Remote control allows use from around the world, but in practice most users have been students in the United States and at MacEwan University in Edmonton.
The US connection comes due to a partnership with the University of North Carolina, whose “Skynet” software allows easy use of a network of telescopes. Students at introductory level take photos of celestial objects of their own choice, giving them a tangible connection to astronomy.
The MacEwan connection comes from their specialized course on “exoplanets.” Developed by astronomer Stefan Cartledge, this course allows students who already have done introductory study to move into one of the hottest fields of modern astronomy.
While it may now seem mundane common knowledge that many stars have planets, most of the planet systems known are very different from our own. The strange systems easiest to study have a “hot Jupiter” racing around their sun-like star in only a couple of days. Our own sluggish Jupiter takes about 12 years to orbit once, so these huge planets are racehorses in comparison. To move so fast, they are also very close to the star, and block its light as they appear to cross in front of it.
AU’s telescope is an ideal size to study these events, called “transits.” It does take a lot of data to study the 1-2 per cent dimming in light during a transit, but reducing that data is good practice for budding astronomers. It also makes the class more real if students can plan observations and then get a final result, a plot with useful scientific data that is their own.
Since AU first got a telescope in 2004, the robotic approach has produced many results—but also held its challenges. It seemed that a cute golf-ball-like dome with few moving parts would be a good home for the telescope but operating even this simple system through the rigours of a northern prairie winter has been challenging. Observatory researcher Ian Schofield has had numerous challenges in keeping the system going. With these problems and with light pollution starting to encroach even on our isolated campus, eventually the telescope will have to be moved to an even more remote auroral observatory, and put in a new observatory.
You can learn more about the Athabasca University Geophysical Observatory on the AU website.