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Small Telescopes Make Big Discoveries

samzenpus posted about 2 years ago | from the getting-small dept.

Space 37

Hugh Pickens writes writes "Hakeem Oluseyi, an astronomer at the Florida Institute of Technology and president of the African Astronomical Society, says his goal is to put one research telescope in every country, starting with African and Southern Hemisphere nations because there is now an amazing opportunity for small telescopes to discover and characterize new planetary systems, as well as measure the structure of the Milky Way. 'Astronomers are no longer looking at high-definition pictures but at HD movies, scanning for objects that change and for transient ones,' says Oluseyi. 'A 4-inch telescope was used to discover the first exoplanet by the transit method, where you watch the brightness vary.' Small telescopes capable to doing real science are a lot cheaper than people think. A 1-meter telescope costs $300,000 but reduce the size by 60 percent, and it falls to just $30,000. For example the Kilodegree Extremely Little Telescope (KELT) uses hardware costing less than $75,000 to look at millions of very bright stars at once, over broad sections of sky, and at low resolution to see if the starlight dims just a little — an indication that a planet has crossed in front of the star. The KELT team has already discovered the existence of a very unusual faraway planet — KELT-1b, a super hot, super dense ball of metallic hydrogen so massive that it may better be described as a 'failed star' and located so close to its star that it whips through an entire 'yearly' orbit in a little over a day."

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Link to Firefox update? (4, Informative)

Score Whore (32328) | about 2 years ago | (#41625465)

Really? Not even trying?

Re:Link to Firefox update? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41625657)

They have to trick people into using FaggotFox somehows.

Re:Link to Firefox update? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41635289)

Feeling a bit insecure about your choice of browser? The first step is admitting it.

Tell us about your mother..

No, wait, don't bother. Most of us know her already. She's sent a couple of us to the VD clinic.

Re:Link to Firefox update? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41625673)

What tha...?

... and the goal is ? (1)

Taco Cowboy (5327) | about 2 years ago | (#41625715)

... his goal is to put one research telescope in every country, starting with African and Southern Hemisphere nations because there is now an amazing opportunity for small telescopes to discover and characterize new planetary systems, as well as measure the structure of the Milky Way...

Before human successfully put telescope into space, we did rely on telescope at the bottom of this gravity well to map out the stars in the heaven.
Now that we have telescopes, are sending more and more more advance telescopes orbiting out there I hope someone can put some sense on that guy that we should instead encourage the future generations to design much more advance telescopes that we can put outside the Earth atmosphere so to explore more of the heavenly scenes.

Re:... and the goal is ? (3, Interesting)

Kjella (173770) | about 2 years ago | (#41625973)

As far as I understand it, the primary reason to send telescopes into space is because the atmosphere is opaque to certain wavelengths. There's also distortions caused by the atmosphere for other wavelengths, but we've found number crunching techniques that are cheaper than sending them out into space because on the ground we can build ridiculously sized telescopes like the 2800 ton E-ELT [] .

Re:... and the goal is ? (4, Informative)

Genda (560240) | about 2 years ago | (#41626319)

Actually we are using number crunching to improve images. The air waves and wiggle kind of like the light you see at the bottom of a pool (it actually different because the atmosphere's upper boundary isn't the source of the moving refraction, but the effect is pretty much the same. It makes it hard to get a clear image especially if you average the image out over long exposures. The mirrors on modern terrestrial telescopes have thin mirrors and actuators that deform the mirror. So they slightly deform the mirror to accommodate the fluctuations in the atmosphere so the two cancel out. They way they measure the atmosphere, is by shooting a laser straight out from the telescope to create an artificial star upon which to focus.

Yes computers are used to analyze the image to control the deformation, but its the shifting mirror that fixes the unfocussed image.

Re:...and ground based is better now (3, Informative)

esldude (1157749) | about 2 years ago | (#41626481)

Modern telescopes with the ability to compensate for atmospherics are now so good they can work at higher resolution than even the Hubble could manage above the atmosphere. That is one reason they decided to end the Hubble's service. Better images are possible from the ground now at much reduced cost vs the Hubble. Or in other words they can be almost completely effective to remove the ill effects of the atmosphere. Then the limit to resolution is simply the diameter of the instrument which on the ground can be larger than the Hubble.

Re:...and ground based is better now (2)

Dr.M0rph3us (1256296) | about 2 years ago | (#41631181)

I'm going for a further informative note here, noting exactly how this compensation is done.

It's entirely true that modern telescopes have the ability to compensate for most of the atmospheric effects, and this is why there are major efforts in building larger telescopes, such as the E-ELT. But for certain wavelengths, the atmosphere is almost completely opaque, making ground observations ineffective, and requiring the use of satellites for these observations. Also, light pollution is also a major problem that worsens day by day, and moonlight creates considerable problems under the atmosphere, even in a dark site.

Since the dawn of digital image and data processing techniques, the modern telescopes and observatories are able to compensate for atmospheric extinction or absorption effects. This effect varies depending on the location and altitude, and this is why higher-ground observatories are preferred, and the local extinction curve can be very accurately measured and applied to the captured data.

Another breakthrough was the implementation of active and adaptive optics. Active optics are used to compensate mechanical, thermal and construction limitations of larger mirrors, by using an actuator matrix on the primary, secondary or both mirrors of the telescope. Adaptive optics uses a guide star - either a natural one or an artificial one (see: sodium laser guide star), to compensate for atmospheric lensing and scatter effects. The light from the guide star is used to control the actuators on an auxiliary mirror, thus compensating for these atmospheric effects.

Re:... and the goal is ? (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41626811)

You're right. You can compensate for atmospheric distortion of visible light with number-crunching and adaptive optics techniques. But there's no way that a X-ray or far-infrared telescope on the ground is going to be as good as one in space.

There's a secondary reason for radio telescopes (which see through the atmosphere just fine). If you have two radio dishes 1,000 km apart, you can use them to make an image with the same resolution as if you had a single dish 1,000 km in diameter. If you put one of the dishes in space, you can increase the distance between them to more than the diameter of the Earth.

Re:Link to Firefox update? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41631209)

A 'failed star'.

Like my girlfriend says... (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41625499)

It's not the size of your equipment that matters; it's how you use it.

Re:Like my girlfriend says... (1)

Virtucon (127420) | about 2 years ago | (#41625847)

I here they have an Enzyte for that.

Re:Like my girlfriend says... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41626389)

That's very kind of her.

Re:Like my girlfriend says... (1)

LanMan04 (790429) | about 2 years ago | (#41632391)

Girth, not length, is the important factor.

Same goes for telescopes!

Why not just the best observing sites? (2)

tomhath (637240) | about 2 years ago | (#41625519)

starting with African and Southern Hemisphere nations because there is now an amazing opportunity for small telescopes to discover and characterize new planetary systems

One has nothing to do with the other.

Re:Why not just the best observing sites? (2)

cusco (717999) | about 2 years ago | (#41626453)

A country is going to site the telescope in the best observing site they have available. Every country will have different capabilities and opportunities. Peru is near the equator but has high altitude and extremely dark locations. South Africa has no high altitude locations but can view much further south. Iran has neither location nor altitude, but has an enthusiastic, united population who will turn off urban lights, including street lights, on important viewing dates.

The point isn't finding better sites (2)

Benfea (1365845) | about 2 years ago | (#41626667)

People have been talking off and on about how to bring science to poorer nations that necessarily deal with very small budgets. This is more about helping people in those poorer nations (giving smart kids in those nations something to strive for) than about making science better, although it does help with science advocacy among the global population.

stop wasting precious funding on ideological bs. (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41627981)

Science , specifically astronomy / astrophysics has nothing whatever to do with 'helping poorer nations'. Funds for astro research are scarce enough without wasting it on political crusades. What we need is most scopes at best locations. If those locations _happen_ to be in 'poorer nations' - fine, but putting ground level optics in equatorial Africa is a waste of money ( no infrastructure, more heat noise & thicker atmosphere than nearly anywhere else) and investing in _any_ projects in Nigeria - short of oil - is a tragic waste of resources guaranteed to be stolen by the local cleptocracy.

Re:stop wasting precious funding on ideological bs (1)

Chris Burke (6130) | about 2 years ago | (#41631969)

Science , specifically astronomy / astrophysics has nothing whatever to do with 'helping poorer nations'.

What a myopic viewpoint, dismissing huge portions of the world's population and their potential future contributions to science, which can only be realized if cultivated. The whole point of these telescopes is that they are inexpensive. It's not worth spending a small amount now for potential increased pool of scientists to choose from later? Are you also against science advocacy and promoting science education and careers here in the states, and think that should instead all be spent on new equipment for the best observatories?

Science is about the future. You're only thinking of the present. Myopic and dumb.

Re:stop wasting precious funding on ideological bs (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41635379)

I thought the future was all about business and commercial growth opportunities, and the only thing science was good for was wasting money that would be better spent on helping the poor.

Re:Why not just the best observing sites? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41626767)

There's a link. There are a bunch of big telescopes in the northern hemisphere that can't see the southern sky. If we want to spot planetary systems in the southern sky, and don't want to spend a lot of money on it, building a bunch of small telescopes in southern countries is a good way to do it.

Re:Why not just the best observing sites? (2)

Dr.M0rph3us (1256296) | about 2 years ago | (#41630815)

It's true that the northern hemisphere had the majority important telescopes... several decades ago. Actually, interest in installing telescopes to study the southern sky began as early as 1820, when Great Britain founded the Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope, the first scientific institution in Africa. Following a few mergers and changes, the South African Astronomical Observatory was established in 1972, now operating one of the largest telescopes in the world - a 9.2 meter reflector telescope, the SALT, completed in 2005. In 1972 Another major southern telescope was built in 1974, in Australia, at the Siding Spring Observatory, housing the AAT, a 3.9 meter telescope.

The first modern large-scale reflector telescopes, that used photographic plates and films, were built at the beginning of the 20th century. The first telescopes having the primary mirror with a diameter larger than 1 meter were the Hale telescope (1908) and the Hooker telescope (1917), at Mount Wilson Observatory. After the vacuum evaporation coating technique was developed at CalTech, larger primary mirror diameters were possible, and for many years the 1948-built Hale reflector telescope at Mount Palomar was the largest telescope in the world having 510 cm primary mirror diameter. So far, most of the large telescopes were in the northern hemisphere.

In 1953, a shared European Observatory is discussed for the first time, and one year later it was established that this observatory will be placed in the southern hemisphere. The ESO charter is signed (ESO is celebrating 50 years these days, btw), and in 1966 the first telescope used in Chile received its first light. Right now, ESO is operaing one of the most advanced optical instruments, the VLT, which is actually an interferometer using four 8.2 meter main telescopes and four 1.8 meter auxiliary telescopes. Plans are under way to building the EELT, a 39 meter main mirror optical/near-infrared telescope, which will be the largest telescope on Earth by the time of its completion.

In conclusion, we have lots of world-leading telescopes in the southern hemisphere that hunt for planets using multiple techniques, including Doppler-shift spectroscopy, transit and direct imaging.

Re:Why not just the best observing sites? (3, Insightful)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#41627949)

1) searching for exoplanets is hot at the moment, it's a selling point.

2) these smallish telescopes are in the price range of poorer nations - not of the people maybe but certainly in range of the budgets of educational institutions or local governments wanting to please their constituents.

3) the nations mentioned are poor, can't afford expensive stuff, and this may spark off general scientific interest amongst their people.

4) it doesn't make sense promoting it to rich countries, because they'll consider it "too cheap" or "not good enough" or whatever.

So yes, one does have to do with another. Whether a lot of new discoveries will come out of them remains to be seen but with more eyes pointing towards the sky, the overall chance of making discoveries is definitely increasing.

Re:Why not just the best observing sites? (1)

cusco (717999) | about 2 years ago | (#41631381)

For obvious reasons most of the telescopes would be situated in rural areas. In almost any rural area in the underdeveloped world the local teacher(s) will be associated with the project in some way, as operator, assistant, or just negotiating with/for the local people. Having a teacher involved is a guarantee of having the students involved in a rural area, and very likely a few of the parents then as well. If the regional director of schools has half a brain they'll be interested enough in the program to distribute information about it to other teachers in the area.

All in all, a program like this has a very large bang for the buck.

Re:Why not just the best observing sites? (1)

wvmarle (1070040) | about 2 years ago | (#41631599)

For obvious reasons most of the telescopes would be situated in rural areas.

Not so obvious to put them in rural areas.

Putting them in urban areas has issues with light pollution, but has the advantage of a potentially much larger audience.

Depends on whether you want to use this primarily as research tool, or demonstration tool. Both are important. The vast majority of people is not really interested in staying up late at night looking at tiny little lights in the sky; the tiny minority that is interested can definitely use something like this to kindle that interest. From a city you can still see lots and lots of interesting things, and to get people interested of course you'll have to show them the known-interesting stuff first.

And this accounts of course for many more areas of science. Bring science to the people. Not necessarily Mythbusters-style, even though that might also work in getting people interested in science.

I'll say it... (1)

Virtucon (127420) | about 2 years ago | (#41625841)

It's not the size of the Telescope but how you use it...

- or -

It's not the size of the Telescope but the magic in it...

Re:I'll say it... (3, Insightful)

rubycodez (864176) | about 2 years ago | (#41626321)

diameter is more important than length

Re:I'll say it... (1)

crunchygranola (1954152) | about 2 years ago | (#41627053)

In fact unless you are using a folded optical design, shorter is often better (assuming you can maintain optical quality). The shortness of a telescope is measured by its focal ratio, with the lower the ratio the shorter the telescope. Galileo's telescope was F/12, and many of 17th and 18th centuries were F/60. The Mt. Palomar telescope is F/3.8, the Keck Telescope is F/1.75, KELT is F/1.8.

Re:I'll say it... (1)

rubycodez (864176) | about 2 years ago | (#41633421)

interesting! although I expect field of view to be consideration too.

also it could be I might have been joking about something other than telescopes.


xof (518138) | about 2 years ago | (#41628069)

See also TRAPPIST to Scout the Sky and Uncover Exoplanets and Comets [] . (TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope) A robotic .6 meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory on the outskirts of the Atacama Desert in Chile.


chthon (580889) | about 2 years ago | (#41629369)

Cheers! []

Not just research telescopes (3, Insightful)

dlgeek (1065796) | about 2 years ago | (#41628263)

There was an incredibly relevant article[1] in Analog Science Fiction & Fact recently. The basic premise is that it's not just smaller research telescopes that are valuable - in astronomy, even amateur observations are incredibly valuable (often because they happen to notice things the bigger telescopes aren't pointed at). The author details a large number of findings that are rooted in observations by amateurs.

Mr. Olusevi shouldn't limit himself to just $30,000 research telescopes. He should also be trying to get $300 telescopes in backyards all over Africa.

[1] Plummer, Alan. Atlas' Apprentices: Amateur Contributions in Astronomy and Astrophysics

Re:Not just research telescopes (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 years ago | (#41630341)

He should be trying to get small telescopes in the backyards of people all over the world INCLUDING the "developed first world nations". Based on the article, my 10" meade newtonian telescope, which cost well under $30,000 would be excellent.

Broadbans may be just as useful (1)

peter303 (12292) | about 2 years ago | (#41631597)

There are these surveys collecting vast amounts of image and other sensor data and posting them on the internet. I have a friend who has discovered a couple dozen asteroids and comets trolling the SOHO solar image data. You might start with some the crowdsourcing astronomical projects at Astronomical Zoo and Mechanical Turk to get your feet wet.

Sensors and computers (1)

g01d4 (888748) | about 2 years ago | (#41633029)

The dramatic improvement in sensor and computing technology over the last twenty years are in large part behind the greater viability of the smaller scopes.
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