First Time With A Remote Telescope

If you follow me on Facebook, then you’ll know that recently I’ve enrolled in an Open University course for certification in Astronomy. This consists of two modules, Astronomy, and Planetary Science and the Search For Life. As it’s been a number of years since I formally undertook any education, I’ve been getting my head back into it by completing some of the free short courses available via Open Learn. One of these is An Introduction To Using Online Telescopes.

Predictably, in order to complete a course in using an online telescope, you have to actually get a virtual hands on with one, which is what this is about. There’s a number of online telescope resources around now, one of the most popular being iTelescope, which has remote telescopes all across the globe. The biggest advantage of this is that you’re able to image from either hemisphere, and take images of objects that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to. Obviously these cost money to book the imaging time, but the benefits are plenty, especially for example if you’re somewhere like the UK that seems to have cloud and rain 48 months out of 12!

However, not everyone can afford to do this, especially if you’re on a limited budget, and up until now, I’ve never really had the spare money to afford to do it myself. So when I saw the OU course and realised I’d potentially get my “hands on” an opportunity to explore this, I jumped at the chance. Hell, who wouldn’t?

remote telescope
PIRATE and COAST Telescopes on Mount Teide in Tenerife

That said, a quick Google search will throw up several more free online remote telescopes, notably one developed by the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and funded by NASA. This one is a network of “micro observatories” designed with younger students in mind, and uses a series of 6 ft reflectors and a CCD detector to produce a 650 x 500 image.

Is It Real Astronomy?

To my mind the answer is a resounding “YES!” I know there’s some astronomers out there who don’t consider this to be “real” astronomy, and that unless you’re out there yourself, then you’re kinda cheating. To those people I say, “get your head out your arse!” If “real” astronomy is getting out there under the stars yourself then NASA and the ESA have all been cheating with space-based telescopes such as Hubble, Spritzer, Chandra etc. And don’t get me started either on the deep space widefield surveys such as WASP. These are remote systems that the big boys use for major science. Just because they’re not sat outside themselves with a 200 P-DS an NEQ-6 and a flask of coffee doesn’t mean a thing. Seriously, get over yourselves.

Assuming that last paragraph didn’t offend you to the point of leaving the page, I’m the first to admit that I’m one of those astronomers who prefer very much to be outside myself, with my own rig and under the stars. But, on those long, cold nights in winter, sometimes you just have to retreat indoors and remotely monitor and control your rig via your local area network, something a lot of us do as a matter of course. So, why would this be any different? Quite literally so far, the only difference I’ve really seen is the waiting in a queue to obtain your own images. If that’s the price to pay for getting to use a 14 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain that’s sat on top of a mountain in Tenerife for FREE, then I’m MORE than happy to pay it.

But can you do any actual science with it? As part of the short course, I have to gather information on a variable star, and then submit that data to add to the light curve of that star that’s currently being studied. This falls under what is called “citizen science”, so again, yes.

So, to answer the question of whether or not it’s real astronomy, it’s a big yes from me, for the reasons stated above.

The Telescope

Well, I’ve aleady mentioned that it’s sat on top of a mountain in Tenerife, and that it’s a 14 inch Schimdt-Cass. In fact, it’s a part of a two-scope system there in use by the Open University, one of which is called PIRATE (Physics Innovations Robotic Astronomical Telescope Exporer), and the other one is known as COAST (or COmpletey Autonomous Survey Telescope.) It’s COAST that I’ve been getting to play with a little, and my first image will be of Messier 20, or the Trifid Nebula, in the constellation Sagittarius. I was kind of hoping to get to image this from my home in Stroud, but the weather hasn’t exactly been playing ball this summer, and so I’ll be using COAST to achieve that.

The Specifications

Dome: Baader Planetarium All-Sky 3.5m

Mount: 10 micron GM4000

OTA: 14 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain

Apeture: 14 inch (35cm)

Focal Length: 3910mm (f/11)

Camera: FLI Proline KAF-09000

CCD: KAF-09000 3056 x 3056

Pixel Size: 12 microns

Field of View: 33 arc/m

Plate Scale: 0.65 arcsec/px

The First Session

Originally I wanted to shoot the Pillars of Creation, but instead I’ve gone for something that was already on my #2020goals list that I haven’t already had a go at this year. M20, the Trifid Nebula, is another one that I’ve always wanted to shoot, mainly for it’s distinctive colouration, even in broadband RGB, so I’ve gone with that.

M20 is a pretty spectacular combination of open cluster, emission nebula and reflection nebula in the constellation Sagittarius, and looks amazing even in broadband with an OSC (one shot colour) camera.

So I’ve selected M20, and my exposure settings. These will be 3 minute subs, plus darks. There’s unfortunately no setting for the gain, but I’ll assume it’s set to whatever unity gain is for the CCD. Now all I have to do is wait for the images to come through. The really cool thing as well is that you get access to the raw data, so you can download the FITS files to your own PC / laptop and edit them however you usually would. Once I’ve selected the target and the exposure settings, you go to a confirmation page and then submit the job, which is held in a queue (this is where I’m at currently at the time of writing.)

The downsides are the fact that it’s not in real-time, although I understand some remotes allow you real-time access, and you’re also restricted to a maximum of four exposures per session (hence why I went with three minute subs.) But once you get your data in then there’s no reason you can’t repeat the job, which is what I’ll be doing.

The Data And Editing

It takes a few days to get the data through for this particular remote scope, but when you do you can download the raw data in FITS format, very much like the data you would usually expect to obtain when sat out imaging yourself.

The final image here is a total of 4 x 3 minutes. It’s had a flat field applied to it as well as the corresponding dark frames, so for all intents and purposes it’s EXACTLY the same as doing it yourself, except that you’re using their own calibration frames.

The raw data is then stacked in DSS (or whichever program you use), and then edited iin your usual manner. In my case firstly in LightRoom and then in PhotoShop, and then exported in the usual way.

M20 Trifid Nebula, captured using the COAST telescope, operated by the Open University at Mount Teide in Tenerife. 4×3 minutes with calibration frames

Is It Worth Doing?

I guess this is the fundamental question. If, like me, you’re obsessed with this to the point of probaby realising you’re “on the spectrum” then yes, it’s absolutely worth doing. We live for this pretty much, and if we can’t get out with our own kit then this is the next best thing in my honest opinion. It’s not for everyone, granted, but for those whom it is, then I honestly advise you to have a good look into it.

For now, clear skies!

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