Ordinary citizens get to search the universe

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The telescope in Sutherland which marks a new frontier in astronomy. Picture: Neil Baynes

Pretoria - A new era in astronomy research is about to hit South Africa with ordinary citizens having access to the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT.net).

The data obtained from observations conducted using the telescope network will be stored and accessible online to all those interested.

This data package contains a great deal of information about extrasolar planets, supernovae and many more objects.

The South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland has been host to these telescopes; so far three 1m-telescope buildings have been erected.

Scientific exploration will commence once the telescopes and instruments are installed during the first half of this year.

Upon completion, the Sutherland Observatory will host six telescopes, of which three will be dedicated to scientific observations, while the other three will serve mainly outreach and education.

In exchange for hosting the Las Cumbres Telescopes, South Africa has an exclusive 10 percent of the total observing time in order to carry out new astronomical research, in addition to access to the online data.

With curiosity about extrasolar planets or exoplanets gaining momentum; the mining of the Las Cumbres data may afford non-astronomers an opportunity to contribute to unravelling the alluring enigma about other worlds or civilisations.

According to the Ethiopian postdoctoral fellow Dr Abiy Tekola, who holds a joint position at the LCOGT and South African Astronomical Observatory, “These telescopes will contribute magnanimously towards creating a scientifically literate younger generation countrywide, also in the development of astronomy in the continent.”

LCOGT is a privately owned observatory committed to time domain astronomy (studies of astronomical phenomena changing with time) and the public awareness of science.

The observatory is committed to building telescopes all over the world to enable uninterrupted observations of stars, planets, and variable objects.

Across the globe, the Las Cumbres Observatory has seven sites with almost 40 telescopes whose aperture size ranges from 0.4m to 2m.

Their facilities are equipped with imaging and spectroscopic instruments that are ideal for studying extrasolar planets, supernovae and other objects that vary with time.

All their telescopes work remotely and robotically, while their headquarters are located in Santa Barbara in the United States.

The LCOGT offers a huge outreach component, and of the six telescopes earmarked for Sutherland, at least three 0.4m telescopes will be dedicated to citizen science and public understanding of astronomy.

Tekola has piloted the outreach project with pupils from two Sutherland primary schools at the recently inaugurated Sutherland Community Development Centre.

The youngsters thoroughly enjoyed the exposure to astronomy and technology.

The Las Cumbres Observatory website offers a great deal of astronomy resources for learners and teachers alike.

“Anyone interested in participating in the project needs to have a computer with internet access, and then the astronomical data is freely accessible on the LCOGT website http://lcogt.net/,” said Tekola.

Detailed instructions for participation are available from this website: http://lcogt.net/education . - Pretoria News


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