I envision the day when a kid from a middle school in South Bend can go online and access a research-grade telescope to capture and process an image of a distant nebula or a galaxy. Hopefully that day will come...in the next few weeks. The Skynet Junior Scholars program offers training for adults to lead local youths in tapping into a network of remotely controlled telescopes, and the first of two educators' workshops is underway at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, WI.
Skynet began when astronomers were detecting high-energy gamma ray bursts (GRBs) with satellites, but by the time they looked in the GRB's location with land-based optical telescopes, there was nothing to see. The visible lifespan of a GRB may be as short as a few minutes, then they fade rapidly. To connect the gamma ray event with its ephemeral visible light signature, astronomers built an array of robotic scopes on a Chilean mountain. When a GRB is detected, the remote observatories rapidly open and unmanned telescopes slew to the target. That initial group of Chilean scopes has since expanded to include scopes in Canda, Italy, the United States, and Australia. Yerkes itself has been among the observatories in the network to capture a GRB in visible light.
Opened in 1897, Yerkes Observatory is still managed by University of Chicago. The building is ornately decorated with mythological figures and patrons alike embedded in the terra cotta pillars, and the facade is Roman brick. As you drive up to the structure, you sense you are approaching a monument as significant in its historical role as in its architectural presence. Smiles are immediate.
Chuck Rupley (pictured at the entrance), Bruce Miller, and I are at Yerkes Observatory for that Skynet training workshop. Here we'll learn how to bring the Skynet Junior Scholars opportunity to South Bend for our local SB150 Young Astronomers program. The big 40-inch refractor (shown below) is an elegant piece of scientific hardware on a massive blue mount that's housed in an imposing dome, but the 41-inch reflector under another dome will be the Wisconsin workhorse of the Skynet network.
Much thanks goes to the Skynet team and the NSF grant that has made this program and training possible. We look forward to having South Bend kids bring telescopic views of celestial wonders to their hometown.