May 14, 2010

Yerkes to link up with world telescopes

The University’s Yerkes Observatory plans to join a network of remotely controlled telescopes called Skynet next month, in an effort to expand its educational outreach programs.

Founded in 1897 in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, Yerkes has the largest refracting telescope in the world, but since radio telescopes overtook observatory research in the 1940s, its mission has shifted focus from scientific research to astronomy education. According to current and former Yerkes directors, Skynet will allow students and visitors at Yerkes to study the sky through other telescopes, which will further the educational mission of the observatory.

“Skynet [has an] education outreach aspect, and that is what we at Yerkes are most interested in and what we are most involved in,” Yerkes Director Kyle Cudworth said, adding that Skynet’s use in American high schools reflects its educational value. “What is really nice about [Skynet] is that it’s a very easy system for teachers to use.”

Skynet, an international network of robotic telescopes, was founded by University alumnus Dan Reichart (SM ’98, PhD ’00) four years ago at the University of North Carolina.

In exchange for the viewing use of Skynet-associated telescopes, Yerkes’ telescopes will join the network. “There are other colleges and universities that we’re associated with and that come to Yerkes anyway to use our telescopes,” said Vivian Hoette, point person for the project and Educational Outreach Coordinator at Yerkes. ”This will make it so much easier for them to get mileage out of our telescopes.”

Plans to join Skynet were initiated in September 2009.

Although Yerkes describes itself as “the birthplace of modern astrophysics,” the observatory’s shift in focus from cutting-edge research to educational outreach prompted the formation of the Yerkes Study Group to outline the future for Yerkes. ”[Joining Skynet] is not a novel idea by any means; this is an idea we’ve been talking about for some time,” former Yerkes director Richard Kron said. “The best future [for Yerkes] is as a science education center.”

As for the impact on undergraduates, Cudworth thinks joining Skynet will lead to increased interaction between undergraduate students and the Observatory and expressed hope for stronger ties in the future. “We do have some classes come up for field trips...With the remote controlling capability and the Skynet, I would guess that there will be some changing around with [undergraduate classes] to take advantage of the Skynet access,” he said. “I think the Skynet access can have some significant impact on the courses for the College.”