SAAO - South African Astronomical Observatory
22.01.2013 00:00 Age: 5 yrs
Category: SAAO Press Releases
By: Thembela Mantungwa

Citizen science : Creating a scientifically literate public


A totally new era in astronomy research is about to hit South Africa hard and fast. Access to the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) data will afford ordinary citizens an opportunity to unfold the mysteries of the cosmos in the comfort of their own homes. The data obtained from observations conducted using the telescope network is stored and accessible online to all those interested. This data contains a great deal of information about extrasolar planets, supernovae and many more objects that are exciting. Currently, the LCOGT data is exclusively dedicated to outreach.

Furthermore, South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland has covered immense ground in playing host to these telescopes, so far three 1-metre telescope buildings have been erected. Science will commence once the telescopes and instruments are installed during the first half of this year. Upon completion, the Sutherland Observatory will host six telescopes, of which three will be dedicated to science observations, while the other three will serve mainly outreach and education. In exchange to hosting the Las Cumbres Telescopes, South Africa has an exclusive ten percent of the total observing time in order to carry out new astronomical research, in addition to access to the online data. 

The curiosity about extrasolar planets or exoplanets keeps gaining momentum; the mining of the Las Cumbres data may afford non-astronomers a great opportunity to contribute in unravelling the alluring enigma about other worlds or civilisations. According to the Ethiopian Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Abiy Tekola who holds a joint position at the Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network and South African Astronomical Observatory, "These telescopes will contribute magnanimously towards creating a scientifically literate younger generation countrywide, also in the development of astronomy in the continent".

The Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (LCOGT) is a privately owned observatory committed to time domain astronomy (studies of astronomical phenomena changing with time) and public awareness of science. The observatory is committed to building telescopes all over the world to enable uninterrupted observations of stars, planets, and variable objects. Across the globe, the Las Cumbres Observatory has seven sites with almost 40 telescopes whose aperture size ranges from 0.4 metres to 2 metres. Their facilities are equipped with imaging and spectroscopic instruments that are ideal for studying extrasolar planets, supernovae and other objects that vary with time. All their telescopes work remotely and robotically, while their headquarters are located in Santa Barbara in the United States of America.

The LCOGT offers a huge outreach component, of the six telescopes earmarked for Sutherland, at least three 0.4-metre telescopes will be dedicated to citizen science and public understanding of astronomy. Already, Dr. Abiy Tekola has piloted the outreach project with learners from two Sutherland primary schools at the recently inaugurated Sutherland Community Development Centre. The learners thoroughly enjoyed the exposure. The Las Cumbres Observatory website offers a great deal of astronomy resources for learners and teachers alike. Dr.Tekola emphasised, "Anyone interested in participating in the project needs to have a computer with internet access, and then the astronomical data is freely accessible on the LCOGT website http://lcogt.net/ ". Detailed instructions for participation are available from this website: http://lcogt.net/education .

For more details, contact Dr. Abiy Tekola: 084 644 7585