Weekend Amateur: Observing the Sculptor Galaxy with Nasa

I took this picture of NGC253, the Sculptor Galaxy, using Observing With Nasa and the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network. Credit: Chris Casper

I took this picture of NGC253, the Sculptor Galaxy, using Observing With Nasa and the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network. Credit: Chris Casper

Observing With Nasa lets you control a robotic telescope to capture your own images of planets, comets, and distant galaxies. Not just a fun way to make pretty astronomy pictures, Observing With Nasa lets teachers, parents, and informal educators introduce the science of astronomy to middle and high school students.

To make things as easy as possible to get started the scientists at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics designed the Observing With Nasa website so you don't need any background in astronomy to control their robotic telescopes. 

The site lets you choose from a list of about 40 objects in the Solar System, the Milky Way, and space beyond our galaxy. Having such a limited selection seems odd at first glance - experienced astrophotographers wouldn't be happy. But the list includes the most popular objects in the northern night skies.

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Once you've picked an object, you do get some choice in the way the telescopes collect the images. You can zoom in or out on Solar System objects to get, say, a close up of the Moon’s craters or zoom out to see Jupiter and all its moons. You can change the exposure time based on the target object’s brightness - short exposures for the Moon and longer exposures for the faint galaxies and nebulae. 

You can also apply filters - not Instagram-style filters that change the color of a picture you’ve already taken. These filters are inside the telescope and allow different kinds of light through to the camera. A solar filter gives you a clearer picture of sunspots on the Sun’s face and prominences rising from its rim. You can go without a filter to get black and white pictures of galaxies and nebulae. Or you can choose red, green, and blue filters to combine into a color picture.

After that, you give Observing With Nasa your email address. In most cases, unless the skies are cloudy, you’ll get an email with a link to your image within a day or two. You can download the image as a Gif or as a more detailed Fits file. Scientists created Fits to make exchanging data easier, but most photo editing software won’t understand it.

Observing With Nasa lets you download a free copy of MicroObservatory Image, a simple program that reads and edits Fits files and lets you save it as a Gif. Its image adjustment tool does a good job of tweaking the image to enhance the details you want to see.

A screenshot of the free MicroObservatory Image software and some of its image processing tools.  Software Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Image of M3 Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey via Nasa's SkyView

A screenshot of the free MicroObservatory Image software and some of its image processing tools. 

Software Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Image of M3 Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey via Nasa's SkyView

Behind the scenes in all of this is the MicroObservatory Robotic Telescope Network, an educational astronomy project begun in the mid-1990’s by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Its scientists and engineers custom designed a telescope that would improve classroom access to astronomy. Each of the network’s 5 telescopes has a 6-inch aperture mirror, astronomical filters, and CCD cameras sitting inside a weather-proof housing. It’s on-board computer automatically positions the telescope, sets the zoom level, and inserts filters without any human intervention. That’s pretty common in amateur astronomy now, but was cutting edge stuff 20 years ago.

When you submit a request from the Observing With Nasa site, the MicroObservatory’s server collects all of the requests and assigns them to the telescopes at sites in Massachusetts and Arizona. The system doesn’t make multiple image when more than one people ask for images of the same object with the same zoom, exposure, and filter settings. Everyone gets the same file. That and the limited selection of objects to observe reduces scheduling conflicts and ensures the system can return an image quickly.

That scheduling system also lets the MicroObservatory support other educational programs like ExoLab, a program that lets classrooms study exoplanets orbiting other stars.

I used the Observing With Nasa site to get an image of the Sculptor Galaxy, one of the brightest galaxies beyond the Milky Way’s local neighbors. It’s producing new stars at a much faster rate than most galaxies - possibly the result of an ancient collision with another galaxy. The only option I could change is the length of the exposure - but since the galaxy is so faint, I chose the longest exposure at 60 seconds. A couple of days later I received an email with a link to “my” image, a dark calibration file for advanced processing, and links to educational materials.

Click on this image to cycle through the results of different processing tools:

OK, I cheated with that last image. A 6-inch (150 millimeter) telescope can't compare to a 4-meter professional telescope when it comes to light gathering power. On the other hand, people like you and I can actually use the MicroObservatory telescopes to create images of our own. It's that "ownership" that makes Observing With Nasa a powerful tool in the science classroom.

You can read one of the project’s earliest papers on the SAO/Nasa Astrophysics Data System. Presented to the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, it describes how and why the CfA scientists created the MicroObservatory network. Back in the early 1990's, the process of collecting and analyzing astronomical images was “beyond the capability of most students and high school science teachers.” On top of that the disconnect between school hours and astronomy hours made astronomy tough to integrate into the classroom. By creating a robotic network the project’s scientists wanted to: 

  • Let students request and then analyze images during the school day by letting the network handle the night time observations,
  • Let students experience more than the traditional lectures by conducting their own exploration, and
  • Teach skills such as programming, image processing, and research design that weren’t typical for science classes.

In a paper published in the Journal of Science Education and Technology (DOI: 10.1023/A:1016668526933) a few years later, the project’s scientists explained that teachers had used the MicroObservatory network for a range of activities that reached thousands of students:

  • Simple observations let students take “their own” picture of the Sun or Moon rather than just looking a picture in a textbook,
  • Quantitative studies let students analyze images to measure the movement of comets and asteroids or the size of lunar craters,
  • Student projects let students use “their own” pictures to explain aspects of astronomy such as stellar evolution, and
  • Curriculum integration let teachers work the telescope images into thematic projects like the concept of time.

The sense of ownership that students developed played a large role in the project’s successes in the classroom. [The original paper is behind a paywall, but you can download this PDF preprint from the CfA website.]

By its 10-year anniversary, the project’s scientists could draw conclusions from the hundreds of schools and thousands of students who had used the MicroObservatory. Their paper in Astronomy Education Review (free access DOI: 10.3847/AER2006022) reported that the combination of equity of access, ease of access, and convenience of online telescopes led to ?? lessons:

  • Ownership of the image motivates the student more than a textbook picture,
  • The limited number of settings lets students fail instructively as they play with different exposure times and filter types,
  • Inquiry-based learning also stimulates teachers and improves their own classroom practice,
  • Students better understand core concepts, mathematics, and other skills,
  • Using online telescopes engages a broader range of students with different learning styles and abilities than traditional classroom learning, and
  • Educators and students use the service beyond the classroom - at home and in after-school programs.

The Observing With Nasa website provides students, parents, and educators with a wide range of activities and training that introduces the MicroObservatory system and the science of astronomy. More than making pretty pictures, Observatory With Nasa creates a path to exploring the wonders of our Universe.