Astronomy with an online telescope
Astronomy with an online telescope

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Astronomy with an online telescope

3 Collaboration in observing

Observing and making measurements on your own can be fun, challenging and very rewarding – as we hope you are finding – but there are definite advantages in science to working collaboratively with others. As well as having access to more advanced equipment like COAST, working with others allows you to combine your results and find out much more than any one person working individually. In this section you will look at some collaborative projects involving The Open University (OU).

Earlier this week we looked at results on pulsating stars obtained from some of the largest and most advanced telescopes, such as the Hubble telescope. But smaller telescopes, such as COAST, are also perfect for studying such stars within our Galaxy, and even for more luminous examples in nearby external galaxies such as Andromeda. The reason for this is the development of very sensitive imaging detectors which, when coupled with even moderately sized telescopes, are ideal for obtaining very accurate measurements of a very large number of stars within the Galaxy. And this is precisely what is needed to determine the orbital or pulsational period of a star, or indeed to make observations of a very large number of variable stars to determine the regions of the HR diagram (or combinations of stellar temperature and luminosity) in which pulsating stars are to be found.

One particular example that the OU has been heavily involved with is a novel robotic telescope called SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets). Originally designed to detect the very small minute decrease in the light from a star as a planet orbiting it passes in front of it, this instrument consists of eight large aperture telephoto camera lenses backed with high-quality CCD detectors (Figure 10). This combination means that SuperWASP can map very large areas of the night sky in a single exposure – ideal for very large surveys of moderately bright stars.

Described image
Figure 9 The SuperWASP telescope on the island of La Palma in the Canaries.

The planet-finding survey with SuperWASP began in 2004 and as of 2016 had discovered 118 planetary systems. As well as looking for transiting exoplanets, SuperWASP has also identified large numbers of pulsating variables and eclipsing binary stars which have subsequently been followed up via dedicated observational programmes on other telescopes. This shows the real advantage that small, custom-designed, robotic telescopes have for these types of scientific investigations. Very large telescopes are best used when looking at very faint or distant targets, while smaller telescopes are much better suited to looking at bright targets, or many different objects at the same time in large surveys designed to identify variable stars.

Another example of collaboration is where researchers have access to data from space-based observatories and telescopes. In this video, OU astronomer Meredith Morrell explains how he makes use of data from the ESA satellite GAIA to plan and make follow-up observations using PIRATE, COAST’s companion telescope in Tenerife.

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The Guyer mission sent a satellite out to the Lagrange 2 point of the Earth-Sun system, which is beyond the moon. Now, this satellite is always observing the night sky. And over time, it builds up a pattern of how the whole sky looks. In particular, it records the brightness of each star that it looks at and sends the data down to Earth to radio telescopes. And then the data is then stored in Cambridge.
Now, this is a huge amount of data. Every single star that it can see has data points over time, which is then sifted through by the Guyer alerts team which is based in Cambridge and Warsaw. They look for anything interesting, any interesting patterns in the brightness of these stars over time to see if something interesting is happening. And then they send out the data for anything they find interesting to the general public and to people like me who might be able to do something interesting with it.
Now, what I do with PIRATE is look through these Guyer alerts for anything which I might find interesting and then have PIRATE follow it up. In particular, I'm trying to automate as much of the process as possible. So these alerts are looked through automatically and then sent to PIRATE if they're interesting.
The point where I step in is to look at these targets after they've been observed for a few nights and decide whether I want to carry on observing them or to stop observing them. If I carry on, after a short time, I try to look for patterns in the data which might determine what kind of variable this star is. In particular, I'm interested in transient events such as supernovae, which only occur once, as opposed to periodic variables, which occur over a long period of time continuously.
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Finally, in this video Nayra Rodriguez Eugenio from the IAC (Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias) describes some of the collaborative projects being carried out between Spain and the UK using COAST, including a search for variable stars very similar to the project that you will carry out.

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I am Nayra Rodriguez Eugenio. And I am the coordinator of the educational project with robotic telescopes here at the IAC. I also work on communication and public engagement projects. So the advantage of having here robotic telescopes from other institutions, like The Open University, is that we can have observing time on those telescopes. And we can also collaborate and join efforts to do educational projects together in our Spanish educational community and in other communities, in the UK, for example.
We are working together in the first project, which is about variable stars, the same, probably very similar to the one that you are going to work with. And the idea is that students can discover new variable stars and be the first one, be the first ones to identify those stars as variable ones and make a discovery. One of the great things of this kind of projects is that normal people can use professional telescopes that are tools that, in the past, were only available for professional astronomers. So now you can see the universe with the same tools that we have done for the last 20 or 30 years and also contribute to real science projects and contribute to science in the end.
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