Looking up through a telescope at the contours of the moon or at Saturn with its faint yet startlingly familiar ring system can be a life changing experience. But in the age of the Internet, sensors, and the ability to connect to observing equipment across the world from a simple desktop, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the attention of MIT's Wallace Observatory team would turn to making their suite of off-campus telescopes work remotely.
The George R. Wallace Jr. Astrophysical Observatory (WAO), in Westford, Massachusetts, is a teaching and research facility run by the Planetary Astronomy Lab in the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). Until now, students in the MIT observing courses 12.409 (Hands-on Astronomy: Observing Stars and Planets) and 12.410 (Observational Techniques of Optical Astronomy), have had to travel the 40 miles to and from Wallace to make their observations. But no more. Two years ago Wallace’s roll-off roof-shed that houses four 14-inch Celestron C14 telescopes was retrofitted with a custom system that allows it to be operated and scripted by a standard astronomy equipment language — and can stow the telescopes safely if bad weather arrives.
One of the greatest barriers to student data in the classes had been the two-hour round-trip transit time to WAO. Between getting there and getting back, an observing evening became such an investment of time that instructors needed to be very careful about deciding which nights to go, and which to let pass because they didn’t look like they were going to be quite good enough. With the new system based in the Green Building (Building 54), students can get started almost immediately when they and their telescopes are available — and if it should suddenly cloud up, they can close down and walk back to their dorms with only half an hour lost.
"After working on it for the past two years, we've at last 'perfected' the ability to observe with the C-14s remotely, so that by the end of the fall semester, 12.410 had students using the telescopes on Monday and Wednesday evenings from campus without the need to drive out to Wallace — without anyone being out there at all, actually," says Michael Person, a research scientist in the Planetary Astronomy Lab and director of the Wallace Observatory.
The lion’s share of the work was carried out in-house by an assortment of stellar students in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programs and others, coordinated by site manager Tim Brothers. Effective and reliable design and installation of the custom shed opening and closing mechanism; acquisition, installation, and testing of remote weather sensors, and nightvision capable video cameras; as well as development of appropriate firewalls to protect the systems in Westford from hackers while allowing control from the designated remote observing lab in Cambridge, all had to come together to make observing direct from Building 54 a reality.
Brothers, who also fully refurbished the vintage “orange tube” C-14s to their original specifications over this past summer, is pleased with how things are developing. He recently expressed excitement at the fact that continuing developments have allowed the beginning of automated observing — the ability to script observations from start to finish and to “wake up with tons of data waiting for us.” A recent milestone this spring was an entirely scripted observation containing two different data sets — an asteroid light curve and Pluto astrometry — on one telescope, resulting in almost eight hours’ worth of data.
Meanwhile, automation of the domes housing Wallace’s two largest telescopes — 24-inch and 16-inch Cassegrain reflectors — is still on the WAO's to-do list. Person says, “My long-term goal is to have the entire site ready for fully remote operations, but having students able to use the shed telescopes remotely is a first big milestone.”
“We still can't control the weather,” he adds ruefully, “but maybe someone else in the department is working on that.”