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The PROMPT Telescopes
|Telescope style||optical telescope|
PROMPT originally consisted of six 16-inch diameter fully automated, or robotic, optical telescopes at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) began building “PROMPT” and “Skynet” in 2004, supported primarily by NSF. Skynet is PROMPT’s control software, as well as sophisticated web-based, dynamic queue-scheduling software. Skynet has opened PROMPT to tens of thousands of users, and is capable of controlling scores of telescopes simultaneously, including most commercially available small-telescope hardware. In partnership with other institutions, Skynet has enabled us to grow PROMPT into a network of small, robotic telescopes. The Skynet Robotic Telescope Network now numbers 19 optical telescopes between 14 and 40 inches in diameter and spans Chile, Australia, the United States, Italy, and soon Canada.
More recently, it has been funded by NSF, as well as by the Mount Cuba Astronomical Foundation and NASA, to expand Skynet’s geographic and wavelength footprints to include: (1) a new, 32-inch diameter robotic telescope at CTIO, with large-format optical, lucky optical, and near-infrared (NIR) imaging capabilities; (2) four new, 17-inch diameter robotic telescopes at Siding Spring Observatory (SSO) in Australia, enabling near-continuous, simultaneous multi-wavelength observing of southern-hemisphere targets, as well as live observing for education and public engagement (EPE) in the United States; and (3) a 20-meter diameter radio telescope at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) in Green Bank, West Virginia, including the development of a radio version of our Skynet software.
Originally built to observe gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) – deaths of massive stars and births of black holes – simultaneously at multiple wavelengths when only tens of seconds old, PROMPT and its mission have both expanded significantly. PROMPT, and increasingly all of Skynet’s telescopes, now serve a rapidly growing, state, national, and international user community as a broad-based facility for small-telescope science.
In addition to being used to study GRBs, PROMPT and the other Skynet telescopes, often in campaigns with other optical and radio telescopes around the world, and also with space telescopes, are being used to study blazars, supernovae (SNe), novae, pulsating white dwarfs, a wide variety of variable stars, eclipsing binaries, exoplanetary systems, trans-Neptunian objects and Centaurs, asteroids, and near-Earth objects (NEOs). The largest of these efforts has been the CHilean Automated Supernova sEarch (CHASE). To date, Skynet has discovered 205 SNe, including at least 65 Type Ia SNe, which are used to measure Hubble’s constant and to calibrate cosmic acceleration. Skynet has also observed 76 GRBs within 15 – 70 seconds (90% range) of spacecraft notification, detecting 44 optical afterglows on this timescale. Skynet is also the leading tracker of NEOs in the southern hemisphere.
Over the past nine years, but mostly over the past 4 – 5 years, Skynet observations have resulted in 56 journal articles, including three in Nature (2006, 2010, 2014) and one in Science (2014), with another approximately dozen submitted or in preparation across the network. Skynet data played the primary role in over half of these publications, and a key supporting role in most of the rest. This year, our publication rate doubled, to one journal article every 19 days, reflecting integration into Skynet of our new facilities. We expect this rate to increase further as we continue this process of integration over the next year. Additionally, we have published three conference proceedings, nearly 350 observing reports (CBET, GCN, ATel, IAUC, MPBu, MPC, MPEC), two doctoral dissertations, at least six masters theses, and at least five undergraduate honors theses.
Furthermore, these publications have been of increasingly high impact, now resulting in over 1,200 citations, with nearly 1,000 of these in refereed publications. Nor do most of these citations stem from but a few publications: Skynet’s H index is currently 21 and increasing at a rate of ≈4/year. Again, we expect this rate to increase further as we continue to integrate our new facilities into Skynet, and as the effect of our increased publication rate is felt.
We have achieved the impact that we have had so far by seeking out, or taking advantage of when sought out, high-impact partnerships, to make greatest use of time when no sufficiently bright GRB is observable, which is approximately 85% of the time. In most cases, this is done at no cost to the partner. In some cases, we have been able to garner private sponsorship of these partnerships, from the Robert Martin Ayers Science Fund. Finally, we have reached agreements with some of our larger partners to help offset site fees and routine maintenance costs, which, as of this year, we are now doing sustainably.
When no sufficiently bright GRBs are observable, PROMPT is used by professional astronomers, students of all ages – graduate through elementary – and members of the general public across North Carolina, the United States, and the world for a wide array of research, research training, and EPE efforts.
PROMPT Collaboration institutions include (1) UNC-CH, (2) 13 regional undergraduate institutions, including three minority-serving institutions (Appalachian State University, Elon University, Fayetteville State University, Guilford College, Guilford Technical Community College, Hampden-Sydney College, High Point University, NC A & T State University, UNC-Asheville, UNC-Charlotte, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Pembroke, and Western Carolina University), (3) UNC-CH’s Morehead Planetarium and Science Center (MPSC), and (4) other institutions that we have partnered with to produce additional high-impact, small-telescope science. PROMPT Collaboration access began on February 1, 2006, only a year and a half after receiving initial funding, and to date these four groups have used 12,801, 13,818, 7,969, and 29,586 hours of observing time, respectively.
Skynet’s EPE efforts include:
- In 2009, we revamped UNC-CH’s introductory astronomy courses, including our lab course, which is now almost completely Skynet-based. Lab enrollments have since increased 154%, all introductory astronomy enrollments increased 116% (now one in four UNC-CH students take at least one of our courses), and astronomy-track majors and minors increased ≈400% (from ≈5 to ≈25 per year). Supported in part by program 5, our curriculum is now being adopted by over a dozen regional colleges and universities, and is offered both online and in MOOC format (http://skynet.unc.edu/introastro).
- In partnership with MPSC, we developed a 127-page Skynet-based curriculum that meets North Carolina’s 9th-grade Earth and environmental sciences graduation requirements (http://skynet.unc.edu/observe.pdf), and trained 75 high school teachers from across the state. Thousands of students have now completed this curriculum, many of whom are now pursuing STEM majors in college. Here are a few quotes from participating teachers and students:
“I am so excited to have parents coming up and thanking me for doing all this. Their kids are up late at night checking images, calling them into the room to see and IM-ing their friends to check out their images. Parents are excited to see their children take such an interest in an academic topic.” – Ben Davis, Teacher, Albemarle High School, NC
“I can’t thank you enough on behalf of Enloe’s astronomy classes for the amazing work your team has put into the OBSERVE program. I think Mr. Hicks choked up more than one time at the fact that high school students were scrambling to their computers the moment they woke up every morning to see how their images turned out. (:” – Jessica Bodford, Student, Enloe High School, NC
“One particular student of mine has a Behavior Improvement Plan. He has difficulty relating to any of his teachers or classmates, or doing his class work. But using Project: OBSERVE, finding the right galaxy, learning about what was visible in the Chilean night sky, how to enter jobs, how to manipulate his rough photos, sparked an interest that no one had seen in this young man before!” – Kathy Williams, Teacher, Scotland County Schools, NC
- Supported by program 4, and in partnership with the University of Chicago/Yerkes Observatory, NRAO-Green Bank, and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, we are developing a national Skynet-based curriculum for middle school-aged 4-H students, now being deployed in two test states.
- Also in partnership with MPSC, we developed an introductory version of Skynet’s web interface and have incorporated it into kiosks at MPSC and Yerkes Observatory. To date, over 21,000 elementary and middle school students, as well as members of the general public, have used it to request observations on PROMPT. PROMPT takes a unique image for each user, emails them a link to it, and then Skynet allows them to request nine more observations from home or school before having to return. Try it yourself: http://skynet.unc.edu/morehead/authorize.php, password = “reichart”.
- Finally, Skynet maintains Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/SkynetRTN) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/SkynetRTN) sites, where we post on Skynet hardware and software progress, Skynet science and education results, and astronomy in general, and a YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/introastro), where we post introductory astronomy lectures. Our Facebook site is very popular, with over 106,000 followers. Our YouTube channel generates about 84 views per day, and so far has been viewed in 160 countries and all 50 states. Average view duration is about 5 minutes. To date, 314,000 minutes of video have been watched, peaking recently at 2.6 days of video watched per day.
Supported by NSF, we have been developing Skynet, which is telescope control and web-based, dynamic queue-scheduling software that we originally developed for PROMPT, but is now capable of controlling many more telescopes and most types of commercially available small-telescope hardware. This started as a proof of concept effort, to see if we could expand our geographic footprint beyond CTIO without having to pay for additional telescopes. This experiment has greatly exceeded expectations: The Skynet Robotic Telescope Network now spans four continents and soon five countries. Currently, we have ten non-PROMPT telescopes (Australia, California, Illinois, Italy, four in North Carolina, a 40-inch diameter telescope in Wisconsin, and the 20-meter diameter radio telescope in West Virginia) integrated into Skynet, and plan to add at least seven more non-PROMPT telescopes (Canada, Kansas, Illinois, two in North Carolina, including a 32-inch diameter telescope, Virginia, and Wyoming) over the next two years.
Skynet has proven to be an attractive option for non-PROMPT telescope owners because (1) they no longer need to staff their telescopes at night, or in the case of campus telescopes they no longer need to keep their students awake night after night if they want to do observational astronomy curricula, research, or research training; and (2) Skynet allows telescope owners to queue observations on the other telescopes on the network when these systems are not otherwise in use, giving them free access to different and often better telescopes, instrumentation, regions of the sky, and site and weather conditions. Skynet has now taken over 8.4 million exposures, currently at a rate of about 170,000 per month and this rate is increasing by about 4,600 per month. All Skynet observations are publicly available after one year: https://skynet.unc.edu/archive.