Pint-Size Sky Watchers
While monster telescopes get the attention, the little guys quietly — and cheaply — rack up cosmic finds.
- By Damond Benningfield
- Air & Space magazine, November 2012
(Page 4 of 4)
ROTSE’s years of observations have helped show that the blasts are far outside the Milky Way galaxy—some are billions of light-years away. That telescopes can detect them from such a great distance means they must be extremely powerful. Scientists now know that a gamma-ray burst releases more energy in one minute than our sun will produce in its entire lifetime of more than 10 billion years. Some form when a powerful stellar explosion beams a narrow “jet” of gamma-rays into space from its poles. Other bursts happen when two ultra-dense neutron stars collide, their magnetic fields twisting together and releasing gigantic blasts of energy.
When Gáspár Bakos began thinking about building his own small, automated telescopes, gamma-ray bursts were his original target too. Colleagues convinced him, however, that too much money and effort were going into the hunt for a then-22-year-old graduate student to compete. So Bakos turned to a field that was just gearing up: searching for planets in other star systems.
He started developing a telescope in 1998, and recruited friends to help him build it. They used second-hand lenses, the windshield-wiper motor from an old Russian truck to power the dome, and electronics they built themselves. “We were using primarily our own money, so the whole philosophy was to make it work without any money,” he says. And they did, for just a few thousand dollars—pennies when compared to, for example, the $20 million MMT. “We took a picture of the Andromeda galaxy with it. It was a noisy image—you can get a better image through binoculars. But it tracked the target, it took the image, it read it out, it displayed it.”
Bakos spent a summer testing and improving the HAT prototype at Konkoly Observatory in Hungary, then, with funding from Princeton, moved it to Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona in 2001. A fellowship from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which runs Whipple, let Bakos expand HATNet—now officially a network—to five telescopes. NASA helped set up HATNet in Hawaii, and after nearly a decade of studying the northern sky, Bakos established HATSouth in the Southern hemisphere. HATSouth uses a pair of telescope mounts at each location, each with four eight-inch telescopes that work together to create a wide-field mosaic of the sky.
Each night brings new challenges, of course. In Arizona, Bakos points out pine trees that emit puffs of pollen at night, coating the delicate telescope lenses with a yellow film. And a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol station in the desert far below the mountaintop turns on lights bright enough to cast shadows on his telescope domes. Each discovery also requires the use of big telescopes for confirmation, which plunges Bakos into competition for precious telescope time.
Yet, as Akerlof notes, those who operate small telescopes enjoy a luxury that those who run shared giant telescopes do not: They get to make their own decisions. Like walking away.
“If I can, I hope to hand over responsibility for ROTSE to someone else someday,” Akerlof says. “If it doesn’t work out, it’s like any other experiment—it did what it was supposed to do. So I wouldn’t be ashamed to turn the damned thing off once the job is done.”
Damond Benningfield is a freelance science writer and radio producer in Austin, Texas.