Home Articles Facts Games Poems & Quotes
Remote Control Astronomy

The Faulkes Telescope Project and Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope have joined forces to create a global network of robotic telescopes.

by Rachel Dodds

Photo courtesy of the Faulkes Telescope Project and Nik Szymanek

Remote control telescope: Faulkes Telescope North (FTN) is controlled by users in the UK via a web site.

On the summit of an enormous dormant volcano on the island of Maui sits the world's largest entirely robotic telescope. Standing eight meters high, Faulkes Telescope North (FTN) is situated next to the University of Hawaii Observatory on Haleakala mountain and uses a novel clamshell enclosure to protect it from adverse weather - or open fully for complete exposure to the night sky. But what makes this telescope really special is that it's robotic: it can be controlled live by users all the way on the other side of the world in the UK. Using a simple web site, high quality images from the telescope can be obtained within minutes.

Completion of this telescope marked the beginning of the Faulkes Telescope Project, which aims to promote science and inspire schoolchildren using real astronomy. The Project launched in March 2004, with £10 million of funding from the Dill Faulkes Educational Trust, established by business entrepreneur Dr. Martin "Dill" Faulkes. In addition to the live website telescope interface, the project provides user support and free teacher training, together with a comprehensive education programme targeting UK secondary schools. Operations are set to double imminently when the Hawaiian telescope is joined by its twin at the Siding Spring Observatory site in New South Wales, Australia (FTS). This new telescope will open up the southern hemisphere skies, and allow UK operations into the early evening.

Beyond school classrooms

Photo courtesy of the Faulkes Telescope Project and Nik Szymanek

A spiral galaxy about 35 million light years away, as seen by Faulkes Telescope North.

Since these telescopes are capable of visualising faint and distant objects in the universe, they are very useful for astronomy research. With a field of view of six arcminutes (or around 1/5th the size of the full moon), they are equipped with research-grade scientific instruments including Charged Coupled Device cameras and various filters. In 2005, when NASA fired a bullet into the comet Tempel-1, the first ground-based images returned to the public came not from NASA, but from the school students on Maui using FTN. Faulkes users have discovered new asteroids, observed supernovae, and regularly study Gamma-Ray Bursts and other mysterious phenomena at the forefront of astronomical research. FTN is the largest telescope in the world regularly observing Near Earth Objects - asteroids and comets that pass within a "mere" 3 million kilometres of our planet - and schools contribute valuable data to astronomers in the US who are tracking these potentially deadly objects.

In autumn 2005, the Faulkes Telescope Project became part of a much bigger project, the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope (LCOGT) network. Their slogan is "We will always be able to keep you in the dark", and that is exactly what is planned - a network of robotic telescopes of different sizes, spread across the globe, with several in each hemisphere always in night time. The final research network will consist of 5 or 6 large telescopes (like the Faulkes Telescopes), intended primarily for science, but with opportunities for educational use. In addition, there will be two separate networks designed specifically for education: 10 intermediate telescopes that will be half the size of the Faulkes telescopes, and a further 20 to 30 smaller telescopes which will be roughly a quarter of the size of the Faulkes telescopes. These instruments will be scattered around the globe, allowing many countries to participate and providing a variety of sites located in different time zones and latitudes.

Photo courtesy of the Faulkes Telescope Project and Nik Szymanek

The network of LCOGT telescopes: this map shows existing and proposed telescopes in the network.

It is hoped that at least one new large telescope will go on-line each year, with the intermediate and small telescopes becoming established over the next few years. The ultimate aim is to provide two longitudinally-distributed rings of telescopes; one in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern hemisphere. This distributed network will allow single objects to be followed over time, and will help to ensure that one-off astronomical events do not go unobserved. The LCOGT network will be a unique research facility: the two original Faulkes telescopes in Hawaii and Australia will provide the starting points for the rings, and these telescopes will be joined by new instruments in South Africa, Mexico and Chile, as well as additional smaller telescopes at both the original sites.

Active learning

One of the criticisms of school science is that it is boring, repetitive and does not convey any of the excitement of discovery. It is hoped that through access to research-grade instruments, located at professional observatory sites around the world, school students can participate in real science, working alongside astronomers. Both the Faulkes Telescope Project and Las Cumbres Observatory aim to engage school students in research, and as such have taken on a major challenge. Currently over 400 UK schools are registered with the Faulkes Telescope Project, in addition to those local at the sites in Australia and Hawaii. Since joining the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network, access to the Faulkes telescopes for UK schools has become free of charge, and it is hoped that demand for telescope time will rise even further.

The educational arm of the Faulkes Telescope Project is beginning to reach beyond the UK. Since September 2005, a programme to monitor supernova explosions has been piloted by Polish schools, working through the British Council. When a massive star explodes at the end of its life, the glow from the explosion can be viewed across vast distances. School students have been involved in measuring the changes in the brightness of the supernova as it gradually fades over the following months, and this information can help astronomers better understand the processes that govern the end of these giant stars. Another large international project funded by the British Council will involve schools and astronomers from five different regions in Russia and is set to launch in late September 2006.

The planned LCOGT network has two areas of great strength. Firstly, the network itself will be able to operate as a single research instrument, to become more than the sum of its parts. It will offer unrivalled opportunities for comprehensive investigations, to track phenomena across the sky by 'hopping' from telescope to telescope. Complementing this functionality, there is also significant potential for collaborative working, and for partnerships between different organisations, across the world, from schoolchildren to professional astronomers. The benefits of these telescopes will be felt not only by the current generation of astronomers, but also by the next, and may just inspire some students along the way.

For more information:

Faulkes Telescope

The Bradford Robotic Telescope

Home   l  Biology   l  Physics   l  Planetary Science   l  Technology   l  Space

First Science 2014