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It’s been a long time since astronomers studied the universe by looking through the eyepiece of a telescope. Today, they generally operate the telescope from inside a control room and capture the observations with electronic detectors. In the decades to come, though, they may never see the telescope at all — it’ll be operated robotically.
In fact, that’s already happening. Dozens of telescopes around the world are controlled by computers. Astronomers submit lists of targets they want to study, and the computer trains the telescope on the right target at the right time. The computer can also close the dome if the weather turns bad, and shut things down when the night’s work is done.
So far, most robotic telescopes are fairly small. Yet they’re making big contributions to science.
Some, for example, have discovered planets in other star systems. Others have discovered exploding stars, including some of the most powerful ever seen. Some of those telescopes are programmed to turn toward an exploding star when they get an alert from another telescope on the ground or in space.
The largest network of robots is the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope. It consists of 18 individual telescopes at sites around the world, including McDonald Observatory. Among other advantages, the network allows astronomers to track interesting targets around the clock — keeping an unbroken “eye” on the universe.
More about astronomy technology tomorrow.
Script by Damond Benningfield