Faulkes Telescope Fulfills Educational Promise
by J. D. Armstrong, Maui Technology Education & Outreach Specialist
Left: Globular star cluster M53, 58,000 light-years away. Right: Whirlpool Galaxy (M51a), 23 million light-years away. Images taken by students of Lokelani Intermediate School, Maui. Image processing by J. D. Armstrong.
There is something about taking your own data that is important to astronomers, including young ones. About twice per year, I spend an evening with students from Ms. O'Connor's eighth-grade math class at Lokelani Intermediate School on Maui. I refuse to touch the computer controlling the Faulkes Telescope North. I don't let the students use the telescope's database to look up targets. I have the right ascension (celestial longitude) and declination (celestial latitude) listed on a slip of paper, and have the students enter the coordinates. After waiting several minutes for the exposure, the students are thrilled with their images. I am always asked, "Can we have the pictures?" The students could find clearer Hubble Space Telescope images of most of the targets, but they want their images.
In 2002, the Dill Faulkes Foundation built the 2-meter (80-inch) Faulkes Telescope North (FTN) on Haleakala to teach young people about science. It was purchased by the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) in 2005. Technical difficulties hampered observations with the telescope during the first few years, but these have now been fixed. In February 2010, for example, FTN was on the sky 97 percent of the time the weather was clear.
When LCOGT purchased FTN, as well as its twin, the Faulkes Telescope South (FTS) in Australia, it became part of a plan for a global network of observatories. LCOGT is building twenty-four 0.4-meter (16-inch) telescopes and twelve 1-meter (39-inch) telescopes at seven sites around the world. Deployment of the 0.4-meter telescopes has begun, and the first 1-meter telescope is now operational at LCOGT headquarters in Santa Barbara. The network will allow users worldwide nearly continuous access to the night sky, thus their slogan, "We will always keep you in the dark." Hawai`i users will have access to the network, the way that they have access to the Faulkes Telescope North.
FTN can operate in two modes. The real-time interface allows users to take images while controlling the telescope over the Internet as the images are being taken, as Ms. O'Connor's eighth graders do. The queue mode allows users to program the telescope to take the observations at a future time. Most of the science observations use the queue mode because it is more efficient and reliable, but there are some projects, such as asteroid searches, that benefit from live interaction.
Getting pretty images isn't the only way students use FTN. Students have been using it to research exoplanets, planetary nebula, variable stars, asteroids, and comets. This year approximately 30 students are working with data from both of the Faulkes telescopes. Sixteen students from Hawai`i have entered science projects in science fairs with data and/or other support from LCOGT. As the renowned astronomer George Herbig told me, "What you are doing here is important. This is where the next generation of scientists will come from."