A recent Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) robotic telescope program has even more resonance with Canadians amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, a society representative says.
The robotic telescope is a “gently used” Paramount ME telescope mount and 0.4m f/8.9 Ritchey-Chrétien (Cassegrain type) telescope, located in a dark-sky area at Sierra Remote Observatories near Yosemite National Park in California. The $50,000 telescope was purchased in 2018 from an anonymous RASC member to increase opportunities for observing and educational outreach. More hardware and software donations came from members, too.
The telescope is currently used for astrophotography and education, and is quickly moving into science as well, according to RASC youth outreach coordinator Jenna Hinds.
“The project was meant to make expensive telescopes accessible to people who may not otherwise be able to access them,” Hinds said in an interview. “This still stands true in the era of COVID-19, along with new strengths in accessibility. The telescope is operated completely remotely through virtual desktops, which means we are not hindered by COVID [quarantine] restrictions when using it.”
While the telescope was available long before the pandemic, Hinds said RASC centres across the country saw a “significant uptick” in astronomy interest after quarantine restrictions were issued in March this year. Astronomy is perfect in quarantine as it allows people to observe solo or in small groups, socially distanced and in safer outdoors settings. RASC National periodically runs online observing programs, speaker series and astronomy variety shows, while local centres (particularly Ottawa) are moving meetings online.
Adding more online programming to RASC not only reduced health risk overall during the quarantine, but it’s a value to folks who cannot easily drive (such as youth or seniors) or amateur astronomers who live far from a local RASC centre, Hinds said. In this regard, the telescope is an unexpected yet valuable bonus for numerous types of amateur astronomers during the pandemic.
“The team and data aspects of the [robotic telescope] program should provide extra entertainment as we are all stuck at home,” Hinds said. “We expect the interest in the program to be greater due to the current isolation requirements,” she added, “and we are thankful to be in a position where we can provide value to astronomers, especially at a time like this.”
In recent weeks, RASC used the telescope to image the Jupiter-Saturn conjunction that this month, will see the two planets come closer to one another in Earth’s sky than they have been for 400 years. Along with the DSLR and a 200 mm lens attached to the back of the telescope, RASC provides near nightly pictures of the conjunction on all its social media channels. A recent GIF of the planets, including a view of Jupiter’s moons orbiting the planet, is seen below.
Already there is a two-year archive of telescope data available in the RASC store including 30 targets, mostly from a CCD chip inside the telescope but with some information from a wider-field DSLR camera attached to the back of the telescope. Data is sold by year of operation, usually at $100 per year for adults and $50 per year for students. This year only, however, access for both 2019 and 2020 will be sold for the price of a single year.
“Starting in mid- to late-February, we’ll also open up a new tier of usership,” Hinds said. “RASC members will be allowed to join [two] teams using the telescope … science and astrophotography. When they join the teams, they’ll be able to assist in choosing the targets, planning runs, and reducing data. They’ll become part of a community of motivated and experienced individuals working towards a goal of producing high-quality astronomy data. They’ll also get access to data as it is produced by the telescope. This tier will be available for $300 per year for adults, or $150 per year for students.”
If members choose, starting in mid-2021 they can also pay by the hour for time on the telescope, Hinds said. Observations are limited to one night per week, allowing six nights a week for other teams and outreach. The RASC telescope will thus be more accessible for science observations than professional observatories, although there is still the risk of cloudy weather delaying your timing.
Outside of adult membership in the program, RASC has a robust outreach program for high school students associated with the robotic telescope, with a dedicated website coming shortly. Application forms and teaching packages will be available in January, Hinds said.
“The outreach program is entirely virtual and has never involved classroom visits, so is still very accessible even when some students are not in class,” Hinds said. “The program we use to process the data from the telescope is available on nearly all operating systems in order to make it accessible for students studying from home. Teachers are overwhelmed with all the changes in the school system; this program comes pre-fabricated with PowerPoint slideshows, tutorials, and booklets of information for the teachers to help with their planning.