The Science of Sustainability

Web of Stars

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Students in Cork, Ireland interacting live via Skype with Chabot
during real-time observing session.
What do Chabot's 36-inch telescope, Nellie, and a classroom full of 14-year-old girls in Cork, Ireland have in common? In a few words, the International Year of Astronomy and the Web of Stars!

Wednesday morning around 1:00 AM, Chabot staff astronomer Conrad Jung and I fired up the systems in the 36-inch observatory and made a Skype video call to the Blackrock Castle Observatory in Cork, Ireland. Staffers Frances McCarthy and Alan Giltinan answered—it was 9:00 AM for them, and Frances had already been up four hours to prepare for our premiere session of Web of Stars. A bus-load of girls from a local school were on their way through the downpours of rain Cork was experiencing at the time.

On our end, everything technological was working fine: Nellie, our 36-inch telescope, was stoked, motors humming and ready to drive us to faraway celestial locales; computers were singing (in their own particular way), and the webcam-Skype interlink was green. The webcam view nicely framed the telescope, making a great background for the session.

A little after 2:00 AM PDT, the girls from North Presentation Secondary School rolled into the classroom, and there was a great deal of excitement. Eight or nine of them immediately descended upon the microphone and webcam and started chirping "helloes" and "hi's" at us across the 5,000 mile gulf (what's an ocean and a continent to get in the way of the Internet?).

After the greeting buzz died down, and the girls' teacher and the facilitators at Blackrock Castle got them to their computer stations, the morning's work began….

"We regret," Conrad and I had to inform them, "that the weather at Chabot is damp, and we're completely fogged out." This was a disappointment, of course, but we had a Plan B lined up in the event of bad astronomy weather. From Conrad's archive of astrophotography, we pulled up some un-processed astronomical images from months past and dumped them to our FTP server, where Alan at Blackrock Castle immediately downloaded them to the girls' computers: Comet Lulin, the Andromeda Galaxy (M-31), the Hercules globular cluster (M-13), the Apollo 15 landing region on the Moon, the Great Nebula in Orion (M-42), and the Ring Nebula (M-57) were the fare for the session.

With the astro-image processing software Salsa-J, the Cork girls proceeded to process the images—taking each set of three color channel (red, green, blue) black and white images and combining them into composite full-color images. Throughout the 2-hour session, the girls broke away from their computers two and three at a time to come to the microphone and chat with Conrad and I—we were even treated to a song or two from the girls, one by the entire class: On the Banks of My Own Lovely Lee.

The Web of Stars program was conceived of by Blackrock Castle Observatory, and Chabot became the partner observatory through proximity to San Francisco, which is a sister city of Cork. In Ireland, classrooms competed over the summer to earn one of the six pilot observing sessions with Chabot, and the program will unfold from October through March with one session each month.

Though we had to resort to our bad weather Plan B ("B" for "bad" weather) for our kick-off session, the A plan ("A" as in "actual active astronomy") will be for us to acquire and image objects with Nellie from lists of targets sent to us by the students in Cork, and deliver them in real time to the classroom at the Castle, where they will conduct the image processing and measurement activities in lock step.

Please wish us and the students in Cork good weather!

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Category: Astronomy

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Ben Burress

About the Author ()

Benjamin Burress has been a staff astronomer at Chabot Space & Science Center since July 1999. He graduated from Sonoma State University in 1985 with a bachelor’s degree in physics (and minor in astronomy), after which he signed on for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where he taught physics and mathematics in the African nation of Cameroon. From 1989-96 he served on the crew of NASA’s Kuiper Airborne Observatory at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. From 1996-99, he was Head Observer at the Naval Prototype Optical Interferometer program at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ. Read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.