E-learning project hooks school kids up to the stars

The eScience Telecesopes for Astronomical Research project will enable British school children to control telescopes in Australia

Australia is set to play a role in the education of British school children, as they use the Internet to control two telescopes in north-west New South Wales.

The eScience Telescopes for Astronomical Research (eStar) project is a collaboration between three English universities: University of Exeter, University of Liverpool and John Moores University. The project will partner with the Faulkes Telescope Corporation which has telescopes at Maui, Hawaii and Siding Springs, Coonabarabran, NSW.

The main problem with teaching school children astronomy is that much practial work can only be done at night, when parents want their kids home and in bed. EStar plans to link them via the Internet to a network of telescopes across the globe. By linking students to telescopes on the other side of the world, schools are able to provide practical astronomy experience in school hours. EStar will also be used for hard science studies, such as rapid response to short-lived astronomical phenomenon such as gamma-ray bursts, and Spaceguard, which tracks near-Earth objects.

EStar will use intelligent agents to request and analyse data. These agents will determine the best telescope to use to fulfil a request and are able to rank requests in order of importance. They are looking for more partners, and plan to discuss the project with the Anglo-Australian Observatory (AAO) and the Australian National University (ANU).

The ANU is already involved in a similar project. Brian Schmidt, a fellow at the research school of astronomy and astrophysics at Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories told ZDNet Australia about the collaboration with the High Energy Transient Explorer (HETE-2), small scientific satellite designed to detect and localise gamma-ray bursts.

"The satellite finds roughly where it is in the sky in a few seconds. That goes down to some stations and then is sent through to our telescope and if we can view it the telescope stops what it is doing and takes photos of the burst," he said. "When the telescope in space triggers something, within 10-15 seconds our telescope will turn to where it's interesting to look."

This sort of collaboration would not have been possible without the advent of the Internet. The sophisticated automation processes allows the telescope to automatically respond to urgent requests, and takes into account weather conditions when deciding where to observe.

"In 1998 we found the universe appears to be accelerating as it expands, demonstrating the universe is full of dark energy," said Schmidt. "To continue the experiment we need to look at nearby supernova, which we can do in bad weather. So when the weather deteriorates this program takes over."

Although eStar is still in the early stages and discussions have not begun, Schmidt sees synergies between the aims of eStar and the aims of ANU, and believes the two programs would merge well.

"We have stuff that would be very easy to use to integrate with them," he said. "We want to be impressed by the science. We are anxious to do interesting science or interesting public outreach -- both things we like."

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