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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 09:08 GMT 10:08 UK
Stargazers watch via the web
The mirror for the robotic telescope, John Moores University
Unpacking the 2m mirror for the La Palma telescope
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By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent
Astronomers, schoolchildren and interested amateurs could soon be watching the sky with the help of a network of telescopes controlled via the internet.

The eStar project eventually hopes to use at least six telescopes, three in each hemisphere, to form the remote controlled network.

Observation time on the instruments will be shared out among astronomers, students, schoolchildren and amateurs who want to use them to research, or simply see, the celestial objects that they are curious about.

The network will also use smart software that will automatically spot interesting or changing objects by searching through online databases and then mobilising telescopes to check its findings.

Tracking stars

Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Exeter are collaborating on the eStar project, which already has three telescopes operating.

Dr Dave Carter, one of the eStar project scientists, said that the creation of the network should ease chronic overcrowding on existing two-metre telescopes.

"Two-metre telescopes are over-subscribed by a factor of three or five," he said.

La Palma telescope, John Moores University
The Liverpool telescope in place
A network of telescopes was useful, he said, because it would allow astronomers to permanently track objects rather than lose sight of them as they did when using a single observatory.

Having access to a collection of telescopes also means that the instrument in the best position to watch an object can always be trained on it.

He said eStar would use John Moores' own telescope in the Canary Isles and had commitments from other telescopes in Hawaii and Japan.

Eventually, the project hopes to be working with publicly and privately owned telescopes in Australia, Chile, India, China, the USA and South Africa.

The network will also be used by the National Schools Observatory which will give schoolchildren and students access to astronomical instruments.

Clever code

One of the most important aspects of the project is the plan to create smart software that can aid astronomers in their research.

Eventually work done to standardise information in astronomical databases will let these software agents check data, call up research papers and spot how objects are changing over time.

An early version of the smart software was unveiled at the launch of the National e-Science Centre in Edinburgh in late April and has already been used to look for dwarf novae.

Dr Carter said the only downside of the project was that it could mean far fewer trips to the Canary Isles and Hawaii for European astronomers.

The eStar project is being funded by the DTI and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

There are some other remotely operated telescopes already available via the web.

Since 1993, the University of Bradford has been running one sitting on the Moors in West Yorkshire. In October 2001, the University of Glamorgan placed a remotely operated scope on the roof of the tallest building on its campus.

See also:

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25 Apr 02 | Sci/Tech
Computing power brought online
02 May 02 | Sci/Tech
Grid helps science go sky-high
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