Santa Barbara’s Las Cumbres Observatory is as immaculately clean as an operating room. On the ground leading to the entrance of its lab lies a four-by-six white sheet, which at first seems insignificant in a room full of rainbow-colored filters and large machines that will build a network of telescopes. However, when someone steps on the sheet, it clings to the bottom of one’s shoes like tree sap and removes all traces of dirt.
Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network Founder Wayne Rosing quickly walks through the large adhesive sheet and continues to conduct his tour of the laboratory.
“This is a clean room to do highly clean work,” he said.
The cameras assembled in the room do not look like cameras at all. Instead, they look like large black boxes stacked on top of one another. It is hard to believe they cost $150,000.
The next stop on the tour requires safety goggles. The machining room, which contains all the tools necessary to build a complete telescope, includes several pieces of equipment worth over $1 million. One of these machines is the vertical boring machine – a device used to shape cylindrical objects.
The last stop of the tour leads outside the observatory to a shed in the parking lot. Inside the shed is Rosing’s prototype for one of his smallest telescopes: an approximately six-foot-tall cylindrical frame of metal. Connected to the structure is a computer, meant to document the telescope’s observations. The center of the metal frame holds a large, round, 40-centimeter in diameter mirror. This is definitely not a telescope meant for backyard observations. At the Las Cumbres Observatory, located at 6740 Cortona Dr., Rosing and his organization hope to build one of the world’s first intricate networks of telescopes across the globe.
Do You See What I See?: A Global Network
LCOGT is a privately funded, nonprofit scientific facility that plans to center its network of telescopes in Goleta. The organization will have all the telescopes connected via the Internet and will instantly pass on observations from one site to the next. LCOGT will deploy approximately 60 telescopes in at least six sites in different longitudes across the globe in both hemispheres, including Chile, South Africa, Australia, Hawaii and the Canary Islands.
Lars Bildsten, a UCSB physics professor and theoretical astrophysicist, said the goal of LCOGT’s telescope project is to always have complete coverage of the sky. The project would also allow Bildsten to further his studies of the supernova – a large luminous explosion with the potential to radiate as much energy as the sun would emit over 10 billion years. Since supernovas only last a few weeks, being able to constantly observe them will make his research more thorough, he said.
“I’m interested from the theoretical side of new data the network will provide,” he said.
Rosing said once the project is completed, the telescope will allow researchers to respond to satellite reports of activity in the atmosphere instantaneously. Since LCOGT will place telescopes in locations all over the world with different time zones, Rosing said it will not matter what time of the day it is; it is always dark enough to observe the sky in at least one location.
“We’ll have the first capability ever implemented at being able to do a very long series of observations of things that go bump in the night,” he said.
According to Rosing, such 24-hour surveillance will allow the scientific community to learn new facts about the stars. For example, he said that currently the vibrations of new stars can only be watched for about eight hours at a time. Without being able to watch the star for 24 hours straight, astronomers cannot fully understand the frequency of the star’s oscillation, he said.
Space Is the Place: The Journey Ahead
By the end of 2012, Rosing said his global telescope network will consist of approximately 40 0.4-meter telescopes, 20 one-meter telescopes and two two-meter telescopes. Currently, Bildsten said there is no standard size for telescopes, but the biggest ones are 10 meters, located at the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
Matt Dubberly, an LCOGT mechanical engineer, said a one-meter telescope will collect 100 centimeters of light, which is a much greater amount of light than the human eye can handle. On average, the human pupil is between 5.5-0.8 millimeters in diameter.
Dubberly also said that all the one-meter and two-meter telescopes will be attached to 16 megapixel spectral cameras.
“The cameras are 1,000 times more sensitive than your eye,” Dubberly said. “They get really high resolution pictures of faint objects out in space.”
LCOGT Scientific Director Tim Brown said the sites for the telescopes were determined by how easy it would be to transport the telescopes, and whether or not Internet connectivity was possible. He said it is important to have Internet connectivity because the telescopes must be able to send information back to the database in Goleta.
“[The telescopes] will be independent in the sense that each one can point anywhere in the sky at any target that’s visible to it at anytime,” Brown said. “But it will all be controlled from a central location.”
The telescopes can also follow instructions sent from the central computer in Goleta and observe the same targets, he said.
Bildsten said most sites will have three one-meter telescopes in case one breaks down. Brown said having three one-meter telescopes on each site will allow LCOGT to conduct different studies simultaneously in fields such as photometry, in which researchers study light intensity, and spectroscopy – the study of a material’s chemical composition via the light emitted.
LCOGT will complete the first prototype for the one-meter telescopes by early 2009, Rosing said. By the end of 2010, the organization will deploy all the 0.4-meter telescopes, and by 2012, it will place all of the one-meter telescopes. Currently, LCOGT manages the two two-meter telescopes, called the Faulkes Telescope North – located at Haleakala in Maui, Hawaii – and the Faulkes Telescope South – located at the Siding Spring Observatory in New South Wales, Australia.
In addition to building telescopes, Rosing said the organization will require large amounts of data space to store all the information collected by the telescopes.
“[The telescopes] will be generating a few hundred gigs a night of information, which will flow back to the large cluster computing facility,” Rosing said.
Even after all the telescopes are deployed, Rosing said the group must continue to maintain them by building and installing better cameras as detective technology improves.
“Our plan for the next 20 years is to study and do as much science as we can,” Rosing said.
Brown said site preparation expenses – pouring concrete, putting in power-lines, placing telescopes and acquiring permits – cost at least $50,000. In addition, he said the 0.4-meter telescopes cost around $50,000 each to build, and the one-meter telescopes cost approximately $1 million.
Sometime between late summer and early autumn, Brown said LCOGT will place a 0.8-meter telescope at the UCSB-managed Sedgwick Reserve, located in the Santa Ynez Valley. This telescope will have an eyepiece on it, which means spectators can look through it, he said.
Rosing said he chose to deploy a telescope at Sedgwick because LCOGT needed a large telescope to test and a relatively close dark sky site to test it.
“After discussing it, it was obvious to us that making a telescope available to UCSB astronomers and students in general was an added benefit,” Rosing said.
In addition, Rosing said Sedgwick has many outreach programs and a telescope would benefit those programs.
“Part of the night is what goes on up in the sky, and it would be nice to be able to see it,” Rosing said. “We can do that from Sedgwick because it’s dark.”
Rosing said the majority of engineering and manufacturing and all the software developments are done within LCOGT. However, he said LCOGT has an extensive collaboration in the astronomy field, including seven to 10 postdoctoral fellows connected with UC astrophysicists, UCSB, the University of Hawaii, UC Berkeley and the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
In addition, Brown said LCOGT works with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope – an eight-meter telescope that will survey the entire sky and be operational in five years. Brown said the project also has other collaborations, including SuperWASP, a British organization that searches for new planets.