Sky high

14th May 2004 at 01:00
An astronomy project offers a unique chance to study outer space. Yolanda Brooks reports

You can bring the galaxy to your classroom by signing up for the Faulkes Telescope Project, which puts research-class telescopes under the control of UK schools.

The robotic telescopes, situated in Maui, Hawaii, and Coonabarabran in New South Wales, Australia, can be controlled remotely by schools typing in commands on the project website.

Not only do they enable students to see skies over the northern and southern hemispheres, the different time zones ensure that schools will be able to view night skies during regular school hours.

Most of the funding for the project has been provided by entrepreneur Dill Faulkes, who donated pound;10 million through the educational trust that bears his name. Further sponsorship has been provided by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

Dr Faulkes, who has a PhD in mathematics and carried out post-doctoral research in general relativity before moving into the software industry, hopes that access to the telescopes will re-ignite a passion for the study of maths and science.

"Each year fewer and fewer students study maths and sciences and this concerns me. When I was a student I really enjoyed these subjects and this project has been put together to enhance young people's interest," he says.

Supporters of the project hope the telescopes will offer something more than glorified stargazing sessions, and materials are available which will allow schools to participate in ongoing research.

"We are not doing run-of-the-mill laboratory experiments, and this project provides schools with a resource that professional astronomers would give a great deal for. The projects that we have for schools are based on genuine scientific research," says David Bowdley, Educational Programmes Manager for the Faulkes Telescope Project.

"Astronomy is a subject that always seems to get children excited and this will bring astronomy into the classroom," he continues.

Teaching resources to help schools make the most of the telescopes are available for key stages 3 and 4 and for A-level. Ready-made research projects include the tracking of near-Earth asteroids, the study of gamma-ray bursts and the imaging of galaxies. Teachers will also be able to get help and advice from staff at the project's operations centre at Cardiff University.

Access to the telescopes is available through a yearly subscription and schools simply log on to the website at the allotted time and type in commands to point the telescope in the direction of the object they want to view. As an added bonus, a webcam allows them to watch the telescope moving in response to their commands. Colour images of the observations will then be ready to view within minutes.

* Subscription costs pound;160 a year and schools get three 30-minute observing sessions, plus 10 minutes off-line time. A registration form and further information on the project is available at

www.faulkes-telescope.com

* For other opportunities to access professional telescopes, go to the National Schools Observatory website: www.schoolsobservatory.org.uk

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