Monday, January 24, 2011

Robot Astronomers

The 'Robot Astronomers' are to rise up. That's the opinion of 'New Scientist'. Here's a link to the article - you will need to register , it's free to register. Obviously I can't re-use their copy. For many years the amateur community has provided a service to astronomy by patrolling the skies looking for variable stars, supernovae, and all sorts of odd events. This article refers to a programme at the Palomar Observatory , see the image.

The upshot is that robot telescopes image the sky and computers then process the data. And then there is some form of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that can recognise the areas of the sky and ensure that the correct regions are processed when the images are compared for changes between observations. What they expect to see is changes in position or brightness. They can build a list of candidate objects from searching through databases of catalogues.

Of course what doesn't get mentioned is that - almost without a doubt somebody has to go out and visually identify a positive. It's still the case that experienced amateur astronomers can simply go outside at night, look up, and see if any stars have changed. It may take a number of years and dedication to acquire and tune these skills, and I'm sure these amateurs can push the robots to their limits.

Of course being a robot could come in useful, presumably I could reduce the set-up time for the telescope. Get the setup correct, ensure that batteries are correctly charged, remember where I put each eyepiece (in the dark), stay up late maybe, better still pack it all away in the early hours of the morning, or before it starts raining or starts collection dew.

Starting to look clear for to-night. Moon rise is 23:15, so there should some dark sky before it rises too high. Although the neighbours stay out late with their yard lights on during the recent hot evenings. The expected weather over Australia Day and the next few days is hot and wet, the satellite photo is clear. We'll just need to wait and see.

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