Telescopes Live!

One of the reasons I like astronomy is the openness. Astronomers - to their financial detriment - are usually quite happy to give talks about their research for free (apart from travel expenses if it is a long way) and are constantly trying to share the fruits of their labour with the world. Sharing in the excitement of discovery includes beautiful images from huge, professional telescopes as well as the less photogenic scientific papers. But the sharing doesn't just have to be with the final output of research projects. Sometimes it is possible for the public to get a peek into the lives of researchers as they are working or even help with it as it happens.

In recent years, connecting observatories directly to the public has involved websites and webcams. However, I don't find a webcam image particularly engaging because it doesn't change much and I'm always left wondering what the telescope is actually looking at. I like to think to a future where you could start up Stellarium, StarryNight or Google Sky and see where professional telescopes are observing in real time. Imagine the excitement of watching several of the world's observatories slew to a new supernova explosion in a distant galaxy or gamma ray burst event. You might even then decide to go out into your own garden and take a look at the same object with binoculars or your own telescope. How cool would that be?

To achieve this aim a few things need to happen. First of all, observatories around the world would need to agree to share the information about where they are observing in real time. Before I go further I'll point out that this may not always be possible, practical or desirable. For instance, there will be times when an observer may have found (say) a new dwarf planet and they want to make extra observations of it before publishing the discovery. It would be really bad for an observer if someone else found out where they were looking and then scooped them on it. So, for fair play and decency amongst astronomers, there are times when you don't want that information public. However, there are still many times when it doesn't hurt anyone for that positional information to be in the public domain.

Are observatories really going to provide this information? Well, both Jodrell Bank Observatory and Torun Radio Astronomy Observatory in Poland already do so, so this is a surmountable problem. We can start with two observatories (and up to nine telescopes) and build up from there as others come on board.

In the past I've written a script which updates Twitter accounts for the current observing targets of the MERLIN telescopes. That is a start, but it would be better to get the information in a more usable form. So, the next part of my plan is to create an XML format akin to RSS. The idea would be for each observatory to create its own feed. This is both practical and it lets each observatory have individual control of their content which would probably make them happier. Observatories could link to their telescope feeds from their websites in exactly the same way they now do with their RSS news feeds. With a common format, users and developers could then bring many telescopes together to make a Google kml file or input for Stellarium. Perhaps more likely is that someone will come up with an even more exciting application that I've not anticipated.

So now I have a plan. Shortly I'll post a draft XML format for a simple, public friendly, telescope observing target file format (a project in great need of a good acronym). I'm sure my draft won't be perfect and I would appreciate it if readers of this blog could contribute improvements once I post it. Once we have a document definition, the next job will be to encourage observatories to create the files. I think that is the harder job but not an impossible one.

On a housekeeping note, my comments section should be working again.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 04th Sep 2007 (18:30 BST) | Permalink
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