Internet-connected Telescopes at Las Cumbres Observatory Allow for Celestial Discoveries Around the Globe

Photo by Hannah Maerowitz | Science & Tech Editor

Hannah Maerowitz
Science & Tech Editor

The first network of Internet-enabled telescopes is virtually in our backyard, with the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) situated only 2.3 miles away from UCSB’s campus.

The Las Cumbres Observatory was founded by Wayne Rosing, who invested money earned in his time at Google and Apple into designing telescopes that could communicate over the Internet with the goal of creating a global network of telescopes.

His investment paid off, as the Las Cumbres Observatory has gained recognition for gathering some of the most in depth astronomical data of any observatory. The philosophy of the observatory, which has 21 interconnected telescopes spread out across multiple continents, is to always have at least one telescope in the dark, observing the sky.

The Las Cumbres Observatory’s global network of telescopes has given scientists access to both continual and quick astronomical observations.

“We’re using new technology to see the universe in a new way. Any time you can do that, you’re going to find things that people have never seen before,” said Andy Howell, the head of the supernova group at LCO and a physics professor at UC Santa Barbara.

Howell’s group was involved in collecting detailed data on a recently discovered explosion type called a killanova, which Howell says may be the source of heavy elements like gold and platinum. Since the LCO’s telescopes are located around the world, Howell’s supernova group could see the killanova rise to a peak and then decline, while other astronomers thought the killanova was just declining because they had fewer data points.

LCO has also created software that can find killanovae automatically, even when the scientists studying them are asleep. The software has been tested with some human involvement, but according to Howell, it will be run with no human involvement for the next observation of a killanova.

Howell’s group is currently monitoring over 100 supernovae, using observations gathered from the telescopes to discern which ones are behaving in ways that are unusual or in ways that support or refute existing theories.

“We’re observing the fluctuations of brightness that supernovae have and what colors they are,” said Howell. “From this data, we’re able to see that there are lots of explosion types that we have never seen before and begin to understand what happens to stars as they reach the end of their lives.”

LCO’s supernova group has found new kinds of supernovae that die out so quickly that they have never been observed by a telescope before. They are also monitoring supernovae that last for many years, with multiple peaks and potentially multiple explosions.

The LCO’s unique access to multiple telescopes around the world allows scientists to gather an abundance of data on both fast and prolonged supernovae.

LCO’s supernova group has also partnered with UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics (KITP) to interpret some of their data. Researchers at KITP have developed code that can simulate stars and some types of explosions, which can help LCO researchers get more information on how existing theories in physics support or confound their observations.

“Sometimes you find a mystery and sometimes the existing theory is correct. Both are exciting,” said Howell.

To learn more about astronomy at LCO, the public can attend its Astronomy on Tap events, which take place the first Wednesday of every month at the Matrix Nightclub and Lounge at 7:30 p.m.