Saskatoon

Robotic telescope system Skynet helps students study the stars

Skynet is part of a global network of robotic telescopes allows users to go online, at any time of day, using a web-based program to schedule telescope observations.

New telescope in Saskatoon part of larger global project to study kilonovas

Messier 51, The Whirlpool Galaxy. One of the initial set of images Daryl Janzen took with the Skynet telescope at the Sleaford Observatory near Saskatoon. (Supplied by Daryl Janzen)

The Sleaford Observatory just outside of Saskatoon is now home to a Skynet telescope, running a Terminator program.

No, this isn't the beginning of a science fiction story.

Named after the movie franchise, Skynet is part of a global network of robotic telescopes, located in the U.S., Chile, Australia, one at Athabasca University in Alberta, and now one though the the University of Saskatchewan.

It allows users to go online, at any time of day, using a web-based program to schedule telescope observations.

"It means not going out and struggling with telescopes and getting them to connect and points to what you want them to point to," said Daryl Janzen, departmental assistant in the department of physics and engineering physics at the U of S.

There's also a cloud sensor on site, so if it's a clear night, the Terminator program will automatically open up the observatory and point the telescope in the right direction. The robotic telescope even calibrates itself, which traditionally is done at dusk by the astronomer.

Watch a test of the automated roll off top observatory.

"The sorting out of the science and what is actually interesting to observe and the data analysis that's done afterwards — all of that stuff still needs to be done by a person," Janzen said. "But the data collection ends up being all automated."

Janzen said Skynet is a great teaching tool because learning how to use a telescope has a steep learning curve.

"A lot of hours, for instance in our second year classes, get spent where students are up at the telescopes and making sure that everything is connected right and that they can get onto a target and the telescope is tracking nicely," Janzen said.

"It's very time consuming and labour intensive."

Now, he's been teaching first year students how to use Skynet.

"They're collecting data that's beyond what we've been able to collect traditionally and in the senior classes that are more dedicated to doing the observational astronomy," he said.

Daryl Janzen with the department of physics and physics engineering at the University of Saskatchewan spent two years bringing the Skynet program to Saskatoon. (Supplied by Daryl Janzen)

Hunting for a neutron star merger

The university's Skynet telescope is also part of a larger research project called PROMPT that's looking for evidence of a neutron star merger, an event known as a kilonova.

Janzen describes a kilonova as "two stars that are just big balls of neutrons, so like a star-sized nucleus, [colliding] together." 

The event causes a big explosion that sends gravitational waves through the universe — and it's a very bright event as well.

Messier 64 – The Black Eye Galaxy. One of the initial set of images Daryl Janzen took using the Skynet robotic telescope at the University of Saskatchewan. (Supplied by Daryl Janzen)

The new telescope at the U of S is one of six telescopes that all have the same optical system, so when each one takes a picture of the same part of the sky, you get the exact same picture.

"So those telescopes can all work together to build a baseline set of images of all the galaxies out there in space where kilonovas might happen," Janzen said. 

"And then when a gravitational wave signal happens, then the observatory that happens to have clear, dark skies can go hunting around looking for the new point of light that's due to the neutron star merger."

The future of astronomy

Skynet isn't the only robotic telescope system in the world. The system is becoming more common and Janzen said it's the future of astronomy.

"As technology has improved, telescopes and mounts are now able to do stuff that telescope mounts 20 years ago could not do without spending very, very large amounts of money."

In fact, the department is already taking steps to set up a second robotic telescope and the observatory has room for four in total.

From start to finish, the project took two years and about a dozen people helped get it off the ground. The last piece of the telescope was built on the last day the university was open before COVID-19 hit.

"It was a large project with lots of lots of different pieces to it," Janzen said. "I mean even just the trouble of getting high speed internet out to rural Saskatchewan was difficult."

In total, the project received approximately $60,000 in funding from the university.

About the Author

Ashleigh Mattern is a web writer, reporter, and copy editor with CBC Saskatoon and CBC Saskatchewan, and an associate producer with Saskatoon Morning. She has been working as a journalist since 2007 and joined CBC in 2017. Email: ashleigh.mattern@cbc.ca.

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