In New Physics IPRO, Students Will Commission a Remote Telescope to Capture Transient Astronomical Events for IBM’s Cognitive Telescope Network

A transient astronomical event like a supernova or eclipse is an astronomical occurrence that lasts anywhere from seconds to years. Scientists want to study as many of these events as possible, because they help us to understand more about the universe.

Large telescopes capture some of these events, but they cannot cover the whole sky. So a network of smaller telescopes, such as those at universities, are being harnessed to cover more sections of the sky to capture and record transient events.

In a new IPRO offered by the physics department, students will commission a Takahashi five-inch remote-controlled optical telescope and a newly purchased camera system that will allow many observers to access astrophysical images of the sky and allow for dynamic scheduling of transient objects. The CCD camera includes filter wheels to combat Chicago’s heavy light pollution.

The new IPRO, “Remote Telescope Commissioning,” which will be held Tuesday evenings from 5–7:40 p.m. beginning in fall 2018, will coordinate with IBM and universities around the country on the Cognitive Telescope Network project. CTN will take notifications of transient events and automatically prompt a network of telescopes mapped into a grid to observe a large region of the sky that likely contains the transient event.

As IBM notes, the goal of CTN is to collect the data from this network of small telescopes, evaluate and classify that data to identify the most likely candidates for the transient being hunted, and deliver the results to the astronomer community for further analysis by larger telescopes for directed and focused observations. Researchers hope that lessons learned from IBM’s Watson project will eventually be used to build an interactive app for the end user.

The IPRO will also explore what it would take to site the telescope at a remote Astronomy Village near Denver, Colorado, being set up by Illinois Tech alumnus John Buckley (CHEM ’76). Students will determine how much energy will be required to operate a remote telescope and determine what size geothermal energy setup could sustainably power the facility.

The IPRO is being led by Jeff Terry, professor of physics, with support in setting up the telescope from Sally Laurent-Muehleisen, physics department associate chair and senior lecturer of physics, whose area of research is extragalactic astronomy, specifically quasars and active galaxies.

“This is a great opportunity for the students,” said Laurent-Muehleisen. “Even though Chicago has terrible light pollution, the filters can screen out a lot of it, and we can take images that avoid those wavelengths. Students can get great images of galaxies and planets and do variable star research.” Some stars have varied light output; researchers study that output to learn about star properties.

It also is unusual for students to have the opportunity to do hands-on work with an optical telescope, Laurent-Muehleisen added; more commonly, astrophysicists use optical telescopes at national laboratories that are run by operators.

“This IPRO tackles a variety of problems necessary to operate and sustainably utilize a telescope at a remote site,” said Terry. “We need students with different backgrounds to assist with this project.”

He added, “We are very happy to be partnering with both an alumnus and a major company, IBM, on this IPRO.”