Wednesday 20 September 2017

How can we see the California skies from Cork?

Project TARA offers Irish students live access to robotic telescopes in San Francisco, write Frances McCarthy and Alan Giltinan

Frances McCarthy, education officer, and Alan Giltinan, systems manager at Blackrock Castle Observatory. Michael MacSweeney
Frances McCarthy, education officer, and Alan Giltinan, systems manager at Blackrock Castle Observatory. Michael MacSweeney

Morning time in Cork is perfect for viewing the California night sky.

How? It is thanks to Project TARA, which gives Irish students live access to robotic astronomical telescopes in California, and allows them capture their own images of the day and nighttime skies.

A robotic astronomical telescope is one which can be controlled either directly by observers, or which can work without human control when desired.

Project TARA is a collaboration between Cork IT's Blackrock Castle Observatory (CIT BCO) and the Centre for Science Education at University of California, Berkeley, along with schools in Portola Valley.

Earlier this year, a team from Blackrock Castle travelled to Cork's twin city, San Francisco, to install a telescope on the roof of Ormondale School, south of the city and close to Silicon Valley.

The telescope installation is only possible because of the expertise of the research group at Blackrock Castle.

The dome on the school is now home to a whole sky camera (great for spotting meteors), a solar telescope (for daytime use) and a six-inch telescope hooked up to a CCD sensor (great at night). TARA also has a cloud monitor and a weather station attached to it.

In 'scheduled' mode, image requests made at any time of day can be prioritised and organised automatically. No humans needed.

However, it can also be used in 'live' mode, both by pupils in the school literally below and by students at Blackrock Castle Observatory.

The beauty of Project TARA is how the distance of more than 8,000km between the two sites helps us out in Cork. When it is 10am in Cork, it is 2am in California, which is perfect for live nighttime use.

Controlling a robotic system halfway around the world in real time, in the 16th century Blackrock Castle, with experts providing assistance if required, is a truly unique experience not only in Ireland but across the globe.

Pictures of stars, comets, galaxies, extra solar planets and even super massive black holes can be taken. All the images taken by the students belong to the students.

Project TARA builds on the fascination many people have with astronomy, which encompasses everything from the general laws of physics and the history of science and technology to an understanding of our own origins.

INSTALLING

We aim to do real science with this robotic system. CIT BCO have partnered with UC Berkeley to develop workshop and curriculum materials for Project TARA, centred around astronomy and the use of telescopes in classrooms.

In coming years we hope to widen the scope of the project by installing more telescopes.

* Frances McCarthy is the Education Officer at CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory. She grew up under dark skies in rural Ontario, studied physics and astronomy at the University of Toronto and has worked at interactive science centres around the world.

* Alan Giltinan is the Chief Technology Officer of CIT Blackrock Castle Observatory. He studied applied physics at the Cork Institute of Technology and completed a Masters in Instrumentation.

Irish Independent

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