Stargazers learn at a distance

October 13, 1995

Liverpool John Moores University is to build a telescope that will sit on the Canary Islands but be controlled remotely by astronomers in the United Kingdom.

The one-metre telescope will be funded by the European Union because it will be built by local industry. Astronomers have linked basic science with the regeneration of the Liverpool economy and thus won Pounds 878,000 from EU "Objective One" funds.

Heading the project for John Moores, which is one of three partners in the project, is Michael Bode, professor of astrophysics. The other partners are the Royal Greenwich Observatory, which has developed many of the designs, and the National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside.

All construction work will be contracted out by this partnership to Merseyside companies. The hope is that this will trigger the local economy so that, by 2000, there will be a network of companies in the area that can produce large astronomical instruments for the worldwide market.

Details about what will happen to the partnership's profits have yet to be hammered out, but to fit in with EU requirements they will be ploughed back into the enterprise in some way. The partnership says that the total investment will be Pounds 2.5 million if manpower, infrastructure and other resources are included.

Professor Bode said that remotely operated telescopes are very rare. He claimed that a survey had shown the new telescope might be eight-fold oversubscribed.

He said: "We will be able to load up programmes from here and the data will automatically be sent back to Liverpool. We're treating it almost like a space probe which have to be very self-reliant. It will be designed from the ground up to be flexible."

The technology of the telescope will include designs developed for much larger telescopes by Brian Mak, head of mechanical engineering at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and his team, which has worked on the eight-metre international Gemini project telescopes in Chile and Hawaii.

Unlike many other telescopes this one will be able to switch rapidly from what it is doing to observe something new. Professor Bode said: "If an unexpected object appears, such as a comet or a supernova, the scheduling can be such that it is difficult to get to it in time."

About 5 per cent of the observing time will be spent on public understanding of science projects.

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