I didn't have to spend $10,000 on my own telescope to create this image of the Orion Nebula. Thanks to the Bradford Robotic Telescope it only cost me £3 (about $5). Created by scientists at the University of Bradford to support British primary and secondary schools, anyone can subscribe to their service and create dozens of images every month.
In earlier articles I showed you how you can use professional astronomy services like Nasa’s Sky View to download data from the world’s professional observatories. I also showed you how you can use the Observing With Nasa robotic telescopes to collect your own observations of objects in the night sky. The Bradford Robotic Telescope (BRT from here on out) provides more control and higher image quality while taking a simple, accessible approach for educational and public use.
Bradford astronomers built the first robotic telescope connected to the Web in 1993 only to watch a lightning strike fry it 5 years later. A new team revived the project in 2001, but decided to put their new observatory in the more astronomy-friendly environment of the Canary Islands. Hosted by the volcano-top Observatorio del Teide, the BRT has access to clear, dark skies for much of the year.
The good seeing conditions lets the BRT provide a unique astronomy education resource to British schools. The simple interface is easy enough for teachers and students with little astronomy expertise while still providing enough control that advanced students, amateur astronomers, and even professional researchers can use the system for their projects.
British schools can subscribe to the BRT through a dedicated website, giving their students unlimited access to the observatory’s telescopes. The public site lets anyone use the BRT for a monthly £3 subscription. With that subscription you can maintain a list of 10 open requests. As soon as the BRT system fills one of your requests, that space opens up in your queue. You could create dozens of images each month by keeping your queue full. But if that isn’t enough a £10 per month subscription expands your queue to 40 requests.
The BRT system consists of 3 camera systems. The Constellation and Cluster cameras use Nikon photographic lenses with 16mm and 180mm focal lengths to produce wide angle views of the Milky Way, the Moon, or the larger deep space objects. For detailed views of planets and deep space objects the Galaxy camera uses a Celestron 355mm aperture telescope. All three camera systems have filter systems that let you take full color pictures or capture detail at specific parts of the visible spectrum.
The online interface lets you schedule your observations and controls the cameras without human intervention. Check out this gallery to see the three-step request process:
As long as your target appears in the skies above Teide, you’ll wait anywhere from 2 days to 2 weeks for the system to make the observations. The scheduling system places higher priority on objects with the most requests. Since the schools subscribing to the BRT follow a set curriculum, popular objects like the Moon, Jupiter, and the Andromeda Galaxy get imaged within a day or two while objects with only a few requests may take longer to move up in the queue.
The system emails a link to the data which you can process using the BRT’s online editing tools. The online tools lets you stretch the image, alter the color balance, and make other adjustments to the overall image:
To make the most of the data the BRT provides, however, you will need to download the data and process it using astronomy or photography software. That way you can make your own aesthetic choices about how the final image will look. My take on the Orion Nebula, for example, is much redder than what you would see through a telescope. Rather than the delicate pink pastels, I created a bolder image (or more garish depending on your taste) that emphasizes the nebula’s reds.
The important thing is that the detail is in the file. You can certainly find online telescope services that will get even more detail from bigger telescopes. But those come with a steep cost compared to the BRT’s monthly subscription. You can also get much more detail from professional astronomical archives. But finding and processing that data requires even more experience.
The Bradford Robotic Telescope strikes a balance that emphasizes accessibility - both financial and practical - while providing astronomical data that students and astronomers can use to produce real science. Your subscription gives you access to this amazing resource while providing the financial support the project needs to support its educational mission.