Ken Tapping, September 19, 2012
If you ever get the chance, read “The Whisper and the Vision”, a book by Canadian astronomer Don Fernie. The book starts with him sitting in a plane, looking at the scenery passing by below, and thinking how much easier life has become for astronomers. Instead of spending months or years in leaky ships, risking tropical diseases and pirates going somewhere to make observations, he was sitting luxuriously in a plane.
Since Don wrote that book, things have changed even more. Now, in most cases there is little need to travel at all. Instruments are enormously more sophisticated and complicated than even a decade ago, and there is no need to actually twiddle them – assuming it was permitted anyway. We observe by telling a computer what we want the telescope to do. This means that except in those whacky experiments that push the capabilities of the system in unexpected directions, such as using the Synthesis Radio Telescope here at DRAO to map the Sun or Moon, there is no need to be present at all. We can set up observations over the internet and specify where the data should be sent, or from where we can download it when it’s ready.
Apart from saving travel money and saving us from cramped knees, jet lag and the other joys of long-distance air travel, it makes it possible to run an observatory more efficiently, and that is very important, especially these days, where funding is limited and has to be very carefully managed.
Trips to a remote observatory to make observations have to be set up months in advance, otherwise the travel and accommodation expenses become unacceptable. This essentially freezes the scheduling of the telescope months in advance.
However, if we don’t have to be there, the scheduling can be very flexible. For example, for many telescopes the weather is a factor. Some nights are better than others. By making sure the observations needing the best nights are made on those nights, there is the best chance of getting usable data. Less picky observing programmes would be slotted in on the other nights. Scheduling decisions can be made pretty well in real time. You just get e-mail saying your observations are complete and the data files are ready to download.
Imagine the disappointment of arriving at the observatory only to find out that an hour beforehand, something horrible had happened to the instrument you counted on using. If you don’t need to be there, you don’t get that nasty experience, and the observatory scheduling can be rearranged until that gadget is fixed. Yes, there are huge advantages to internet astronomy, but despite a reduced need to experience the “joys” of air travel we still miss seeing some of those beautiful and exotic locations. That primal kick you get out of being there in the control room of a modern radio or optical telescope is really special.
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