Monday, September 3, 2001

“Garage Attendant” Astronomy

(Syndicated by Metro World News in 2001)

Three of the more than dozen telescopes at Mauna Kea.
                                                             Photo: Hans Sandberg

New technology for observing the sky is rapidly changing the way astronomers work. The lonely genius standing by his telescope and smoking a pipe is harder and harder to find these days, as satellite links and fiber optic data networks make it possible to use telescopes from afar. For example, most of the astronomers using the Keck twin observatories do their viewing from the city of Waimea, on the north shore of the Big Island. And Gemini North’s telescope is operated from its base camp in nearby Hilo, as well as from the top of Mauna Kea.

“It is changing the way we do science. Not only can we access these big telescopes over the net, but we also have access to huge databases from other areas,” says Matt Mountain, director of the Gemini observatory. “Sociologically it’s a radically different way of doing astronomy, which makes some of the traditional astronomers uncomfortable – they even call remote observing ‘garage attendant astronomy,’” says Mountain. He compares Gemini to the Hubble Space Telescope, where an astronomer submits an application, and someone on Gemini’s staff does the observing (when the conditions are just right.) Besides, it is easier and cheaper for Mountain’s staff and visiting astronomers to remain on sea level in the city of Hilo, rather than 13,796 feet up.

In the future, even amateur astronomers and school children may get to peek over the shoulders of astronomers. Mountain dreams of the day when school classes visiting New York’s Rose Center for Earth & Space will hook-up with Mauna Kea’s telescopes via the internet. “Astronomy has got to get more accessible - people are fascinated by it,” he says.

Hans Sandberg

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