February 4, 2017

Remote Robotic Telescope Lab Notes - Part 3

It's been about a month since the last blog about our work on the ATEO project, but that doesn't mean we haven't been busy. Last time we took a look at some of the hardware being used for ATEO, introducing some new technology we are throwing into the mix (by way of Raspberry Pi) to keep things interesting. Now we'll take a peek at some of the software that will be used as part of ATEO, specifically the UI (user interface) that will be the students access point into the ATEO telescope.

For the ATEO project, we wanted to be able to deliver our "product" via the World Wide Web: all a student should need to access the ATEO telescope is a browser and an internet connection. Our first challenge with designing and implementing a web-based tool was: how do we choose from the overabundance of available web application stacks (PHP, Ruby, Node, etc...), all of which provide what we need with varying degrees of complexity and success? The choice turned out to not be very difficult since we wanted to hit the ground running and not spend lots of time learning new languages, and this meant that a JavaScript implementation using NodeJS was the best choice. In particular, we chose the HapiJS framework which allows us to build not only the web application portal but also the APIs needed to tie everything together.

Now, what will it look like? Here is an initial look at a prototype of the portal home page:

ATEO Online Portal on a Desktop Computer
ATEO Online Portal on a Desktop Computer

Image of Online Portal on an iPhone 6
Online Portal on an iPhone 6

Following the KISS principle ("Keep it Simple, Stupid"), the idea is to make it very obvious what each section and link do; we want to avoid confusing the user by minimizing the clutter which can result by having too much information on one page. This solution is also tablet and mobile friendly: the portal dynamically adjusts its layout according to the size of the browser so you will not be restricted to using a desktop or laptop when using ATEO.

Up next: since we have working versions of the profile page and the others will be following shortly, expect a follow-up blog post on the status of the ATEO portal with screen shots and more information on what each of these areas does. Until then - clear skies!
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January 22, 2017

2017 Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program

Applications are now being accepted for the 2017 Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program (ACEAP).

This program, in its third year, brings amateur astronomers, planetarium personnel, and astronomy educators of all levels to U.S.-funded astronomy facilities in Chile. While there, ambassadors receive in-depth, behind-the-scenes information on the instruments, science, and research coming out of some of the world’s most productive and advanced astronomy observatories.

Image of Applications for the 2017 ACEAP program are now being accepted
Applications for the 2017 ACEAP program are now being accepted

The Astronomy in Chile Educator Ambassadors Program is a collaborative project of Associated Universities, Inc., the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, National Optical Astronomy Observatory, and Gemini Observatory.

ACEAP was initially funded in 2015 as a two-year pilot program by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Additional funding for 2017 has been requested but not as yet secured. Due to the success of the pilot program, however, the partners are accepting applications on a contingent basis in anticipation of funding for a third year.

Eligible individuals for this program, who must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, include amateur astronomers, kindergarten through college (formal and informal) educators who teach astronomy as part of their curriculum or program, and planetarium educators and others who communicate astronomy to the public.

A total of nine ambassadors will be selected from across the United States and its territories.

The third ACEAP program is scheduled for June 17-26, 2017. This nine-day expedition will include stops at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), Gemini-South Observatory, and the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).

In addition to the professional facilities, ACEAP Ambassadors will visit smaller amateur/public observatories. Weather permitting, nighttime observing opportunities will be made available.

ACEAP takes a shared commitment approach, so the majority of the expenses for each ambassador is covered by grant funding. Each ambassador (or their institution or sponsor) will be responsible for airfare from the United States to Santiago, Chile, and from Santiago to Calama and La Serena. Additional details can be found on the application site.

To learn more about the program and to apply, go to https://public.nrao.edu/look-deeper/aceap/ or visit us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/AstronomyAmbassadorsProgram/.

The deadline for applications is 11:59 p.m. EST, Sunday, February 19.
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January 16, 2017

Remote Imaging with College Students

One of Insight Observatory's goals is to introduce secondary school and college students to the art of imaging the night sky remotely. I recently had the pleasure of doing so with a student at Williams College located Williamstown, Massachusetts. Nicole was entering her freshman year with major in astrophysics and a minor in art (with a concentration in photography).

Being that Nicole has a profound interest in astronomy, her father presented her with a gift of a remote imaging session with Insight Observatory for Christmas. Nicole and I set up an appointment to meet via Skype so I could introduce her to the process of remote deep-sky imaging. It was a Saturday afternoon here in the northeast so we needed to image in Australia where it was the middle of the night. As the process of remote imaging was new to this astrophysics student, I wanted to start off with introducing her to the basics of CCD digital imaging. Nicole and I covered the contemporary way of imaging deep-sky objects through a remote robotic telescope accompanied with a CCD imaging system.

Image of NGC 1365 in Fornax - 300 Second Image by Nicole F.
NGC 1365 in Fornax - 600 Second Image by Nicole F.
As we logged on to the remote telescope network, iTelescope.net, I decided we should start with the 90mm refractor telescope that is equipped with an SBIG ST2000 XMC One-Shot Color CCD camera. This instrument will take a color image and there is no need to stack multiple monochrome images. I figured this would be a good place to start with taking her very first image.

Sharing her computer screen with me via Skype, I had her log into the remote telescope's interface and select an object to image. This remote telescope network that Insight Observatory uses suggests the best deep-sky object to image with the telescope you are connected to. One of the suggested deep-sky objects to be imaged was NGC 1365. This object, also known as the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy, is a barred spiral galaxy about 56 million light-years away in the southern constellation Fornax.

Nicole then started a 600-second exposure of the galaxy and as she patiently waited for a preview of the image, we discussed more in-depth advanced methods of CCD imaging such as stacking images, using different types of filters, etc.

Image of NGC 300 in Sculptor - 600 Second Image by Nicole F.
NGC 300 in Sculptor - 600 Second Image by Nicole F.
Once the 10-minute image was completed, Nicole and I were able to view the result. Nicole was impressed how fine the detail was in the galaxy for such a short exposure. We then moved on to image another galaxy, NGC 300, a spiral galaxy in the constellation Sculptor. Nicole followed the same process as the previous image. After seeing the result of her image of NGC 300, she was amazed to how different the characteristics were between both galaxies.

As our one hour imaging session was wrapping up, Nicole shared the fact that she had a great experience with her first time imaging with a remote robotic telescope. As for me, it was very rewarding sharing the experience with her and I look forward to sharing more experiences like hers with other secondary school and college students.
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