Robotic Astronomy at Pomfret

by Josh Lake, faculty –

Carpe Noctem: Pomfret’s Olmsted Observatory “an amazing opportunity for Pomfret astronomy students, seldom seen outside of a major university.”

F_Lake_JoshuaOver the last six years, the Olmsted Observatory at Pomfret has benefitted from a number of significant upgrades. First, our primary visual telescope was replaced with a Celestron 14, greatly increasing our ability to see beautiful views of the moon, planets, and the sun (with a solar filter, of course!). Piggybacked on top of the C14 was a small but perfectly engineered refracting telescope, the Takahashi. Its purpose was to turn the observatory into a powerful astrophotography and data collection platform. Combined with a super-cooled CCD camera, Pomfret astronomy students could now take deep exposures of the heavens, finding nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters.

Along with this great observing power came another challenge: how do you get fourteen students to share the telescope and camera when the night is clear? With the storied unpredictability of New England weather, every starry night needed to be seized for astronomical studies. Crowding an entire class into the dome doesn’t make much sense, as only a few of the students would get to control the system while everyone else watched. Smaller groups could use the setup, but that stretched lab nights into the wee hours, a challenge in itself, considering the demanding Pomfret schedule.

The answer was automation. With another generous donation from Mr. Olmsted making every part of its control system robotic, the observatory took another major leap forward. The tracking mount that supports the telescopes can follow the motion of any object in the sky over the course of night, perfectly offsetting the rotation of the Earth. It can also be controlled by a computer, and computers can be controlled remotely through the Internet, whether across campus or across the world. For years, however, the large hemispherical dome that protects the equipment had to be moved manually, requiring someone (usually the observatory director, yours truly) to sit in the cold and rotate the dome every few minutes. With automation motors on the rotator and the main shutter, the observatory can now robotically move in concert, honing in on any target.

This presents an amazing opportunity for Pomfret astronomy students, seldom seen outside of a major university. They can now remotely sign in to the observatory computer, open the dome, start the instruments, and make full-night observations of the night sky, either from their dorm rooms or day-student homes. They can now meet virtually in small groups to choose a target and record it. Every clear night can be used, and long runs of pictures can be taken, long after we’ve all gone to bed.

The results speak for themselves in the pictures accompanying this article. The more images the camera can take and the longer the exposures, the ‘deeper’ and more beautiful the images turn out. This puts us light years ahead of where we were even a couple of years ago. The crystal-clear image of the Horsehead Nebula was taken by remote control on an iPhone while the operator was watching a movie in Massachusetts, 45 minutes away. The deep view of the Orion Nebula was the result of seven straight hours of observations, and each exposure was 20 minutes long, requiring perfect tracking and focus until sunrise.

While the recent evolution of the facility is remarkable, there is still a bit more to do to make the Olmsted Observatory peerless in the area. A new software suite, once calibrated, will allow users to fill out a simple web interface that will tell the computer, “When the Andromeda Galaxy is up and the weather is clear, collect data on it.”  A key part of that command is the weather conditional, and thanks to the generosity of the Bartkus family, we have a digital weather station that sends feedback to the dome software, keeping the equipment closed when it’s cloudy or rainy. While students will still be required to learn the more complex details of the equipment and the manual control process, this software will aid them in their later studies.

The observatory has reached a great new milestone this year as it continues to advance in precision and ability. It has become a place where high school students can do scientific imaging work on the level of professionals and skilled astrophotographers. Thanks to the continued support, it is fulfilling its potential as a magnet for prospective students interested in astronomy, engineering, and robotics. The future of the program and the facility is bright as it gets used by greater numbers of students, both on site and remotely. It is a privilege to have the opportunity to scientifically scan the cosmos at this level, and I am grateful for the chance to expose our community to these mindblowing stellar vistas.

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About Pomfret School

Founded in 1894, Pomfret is an independent co-educational college preparatory boarding and day school for 350 students in grades 9 through 12 and postgraduate, located on a scenic 500 acre campus in Northeastern Connecticut.
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