In a galaxy far, far away...

4th March 2005 at 00:00
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, it's time to find out what you are.

Douglas Blane reports on how schools can use Faulkes telescopes to explore the universe

Astronomers rise above city lights and industrial grime by using optical telescopes on high mountains, where dark nights and clean air are guaranteed. But these are good sites for telescopes not humans, who suffer biting cold, thin air and altitude sickness in their quest for knowledge.

Exposing schoolchildren to such conditions is a bad idea. So, how else can they experience the thrill of exploring a distant galaxy, the surface of Mars or the trajectory of an asteroid?

"They can control a telescope from their classroom," says Dan Hillier, visitor centre manager at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. "It's what the Faulkes telescope project is all about."

Located in Siding Springs, Australia, and Maui, Hawaii, the two telescopes built at a cost of pound;10 million by the Faulkes Educational Trust are the largest in the world devoted to education.

"With telescopes, big is better," says Mr Hillier. "You gather more light, so you get more detail. You can see more distant objects, which means looking back to earlier stages of the universe."

The Faulkes telescopes have been accessible to schools in England for almost a year, but they will be launched in Scotland on March 21 by the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, one of several UK centres co-ordinating the educational use of these instruments.

"The telescopes are operated entirely remotely," says Mr Hillier. "It's a remarkable thing, children and teachers controlling massive pieces of scientific equipment half a world away."

Each Faulkes telescope stands 8m tall, has a 2m diameter mirror and, like all professional telescopes, is mounted to move independently in two axes, allowing it to track astronomical objects.

"The telescopes are designed to be very robust and are protected by this clam-shell," says Mr Hillier, indicating a telescope image on the project website. "If conditions on the mountain are good, the clam opens wide to let the telescope see the sky. In the event of rain or too much humidity, sensors will close it down."

During a 30-minute session, classes can photograph up to six astronomical objects. The telescope takes time to point itself at precisely the right part of the sky.

"Because of all the cables attached to the telescope it has a memory, so it may decide to turn the long way round to avoid tangling itself up," says Mr Hillier.

Much of the existing educational material is aimed at the curriculum in England, but resources for Scottish schools are being developed, says Mr Hillier.

"We thought at first the telescopes would only used by secondary schools, but teachers are telling us they would be good too in the upper primary.

"We now have four Scottish schools trialling the Faulkes telescopes and are aiming to roll it out to a lot more in the coming session," he says.

The project website provides support, including a simulation of the observing process, which lets teachers practise free from the pressure of having pound;5 million of sophisticated machinery awaiting instructions.

Users might want to provide co-ordinates of objects they are interested in.

More usefully for non-astronomers, the system allows users to choose a particular object - Mars, the Crab nebula, the Andromeda galaxy - then does its own calculations, taking account of time and date, and tells the telescope where to point.

"A teacher could register, book a telescope, plan and carry out the classroom observations with no input from us at all. It's not too difficult," says Mr Hillier. "but teachers will be able to help their pupils get more out of a session if they have had some training and guidance first.

"So at ROE we are building on links with the Institute of Physics, the Association for Science Education, science centres, observatories, amateur astronomy groups and professional astronomy departments to create a network that will provide professional development and support for teachers around Scotland."

"The powerful thing about telescope projects is the sense of expectation they generate in a class," says Mr Hillier. "So that gives the teacher a window in which their pupils are motivated to do science preparation and research.

"The session itself is also highly motivating. There is a romance and a glamour about big telescopes which can now be experienced by teachers and pupils in classrooms all over Scotland."

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