process globular cluster
false color zoom ring nebula
false color whirlpool galaxy
May 2, 2001

Mount Laguna Observatory Streams Images From Telescope to SDSU Laboratory via HPWREN

Last month marked an important event in the history of San Diego State University's 15-acre Mount Laguna Observatory (MLO). On the evening of April 16, astronomer Bill Welsh streamed images from MLO's 40-inch telescope to his laboratory at San Diego State University (SDSU) via the 45 Mbps backbone of the NSF-funded High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network HPWREN. The following morning, the images were displayed to students in Professor Janet Wood's Astronomy 101 class.

"We are extremely excited about seeing a major goal of this collaborative networking project with UCSD realized," said MLO Director Paul Etzel, Chair of SDSU's Astronomy Department. "We will now work to build research, educational, and public outreach capabilities upon HPWREN."

For instance, comparisons of new images can now easily be made to archival images of the same sky fields stored on the SDSU campus. Such comparisons reveal the appearance of novae and supernovae in other galaxies. Similarly, MLO's research partners at the University of Illinois and those at other sister institutions in the California State University (CSU) system will benefit immediately by more efficient transfer of data to and from their home campuses.

A pilot "service" observing program is planned for the fall of 2001 in which Dr. Fred Ringwald and his students at CSU Fresno will be granted observing time at MLO. Over the Internet, Ringwald will remotely direct an SDSU observer physically located at MLO and interact with the data flow of new images in real time to optimize observations. "The recent demonstration by SDSU professors Welsh and Wood just touches on the educational opportunities that can be afforded by HPWREN in our General Education classes and our Astronomy Majors and Graduate programs," said Etzel.

Public outreach activities include the rapid response to recent discoveries of general interest. For example, images of new comets could be placed on the web for distribution to the media or display at local high schools, community colleges, or the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (located in San Diego's Balboa Park).

mount laguna observatory 40-inch telescope

This 40-inch telescope is equipped with several auxiliary instruments including CCD cameras, a Cassegrain spectrograph, a Near-IR camera, an automated photometer, a coudé bench spectrograph, and a grism spectrograph.

SDSU is currently raising funds to construct a new generation 100-inch class robotic telescope based on the 80-inch Liverpool John Moores University (UK) Telescope soon to go into operation on La Palma in the Canary Islands. This telescope design allows for up to seven different instruments to be mounted simultaneously, which can be selected by computer by simply rotating a flat mirror to direct the focused light of the telescope to the desired instrument station. The SDSU spin-off company, Astronomical Research Cameras, Inc., built the primary electronic camera for the Liverpool Telescope. Placing such a robotic telescope with automated auxiliary instruments at MLO will allow for real-time "remote" observing that would be a vast improvement in efficiency over "service" observing, which requires technical staff at the observatory to carry out observations for an astronomer at a remote location. The high-speed capabilities of HPWREN allow for the efficient transfer of observational data, command and control language, and even slow scan video for target acquisition over the Internet. Collaborating astronomers and their students at remote locations would be able to sit at workstations at their home institutions and have the "feel" of being in the control room right next to the telescope at MLO.

paul etzel and bud hale discuss mlo installation Paul Etzel (MLO) and Bud Hale (UCSD/SDSC) review the layout plans during the installation of the fiber-optics network between the four telescope domes at MLO to connect them to HPWREN.

However, the most exciting prospect for the use of robotic telescopes at MLO would be to join with other institutions with similar 100-inch class telescopes and research interests to form a global network all linked by the Internet. By placing at least three such telescopes in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres of the earth, the nighttime sky could be observed continuously as night falls over each observatory in succession. Member robotic observatories would agree to share certain fractions of their telescope time, which is not new to astronomy - a truly global science. Even before the Internet and the new robotic telescopes, astronomers cooperated on projects that required extended observations of time-variable objects such as pulsating white dwarf stars, dwarf novae, and many other forms of variable stars.

Today, the high-speed communications afforded by the Internet, and the rapid response time of modern robotic telescopes, would allow for the execution of some high-profile observations that cannot be done by the world's largest telescopes. The world's largest telescopes are not globally distributed; they are concentrated in Chile and Hawaii, and they are not robotic. Observing time on large telescopes is granted to astronomers individually months in advance, and it cannot be rescheduled for other projects. However, a global network of robotic telescopes can respond very quickly to high-priority events by computer-control. Examples of such events are 1) identifying the optical counterparts of gamma-ray burst objects, 2) sampling known gravitational lensing events at short time intervals to find the signature of extra-solar, earthlike planets as their parent stars pass in front of more distant stars, and 3) quickly obtaining low-dispersion spectra of recently discovered extra-galactic supernovae to trigger further observations with the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Mount Laguna Observatory is operated jointly by San Diego State University Astronomy Department and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The observatory was dedicated in 1968, and was built with funding from the National Science Foundation, with matching funds provided to SDSU by the State of California. The facilities include three research-grade telescopes of 16-, 24- and 40-inch apertures, and a 21-inch telescope for public viewing in conjunction with the Summer Visitor's program operated jointly with the United States Forest Service. The observatory also has a four-bedroom dormitory, a full-service shop building built with State funds, and a four building Visitor's Center built almost entirely with private funds.

Additional photographs regarding the Mount Laguna Observatory are available at http://hpwren.ucsd.edu/Photos/sites.html#Laguna.


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