Gilbert, Jason A. Constructing the Remote Observatory for Variable Object Research Faculty Mentor: J. Ward Moody, Physics and Astronomy Scientists who attempt to unravel the mysteries of the universe have some physical limitations to deal with in their quest. For example, an observer must stay up all night to operate the telescopes that record the data. There are now automated telescopes that allow the scientist to enter a list of objects (stars, asteroids, planets, galaxies, etc.) into the telescope’s computer, and the telescope will move by itself to each one, taking and recording data throughout the course of the night. Some telescopes can even be operated remotely so the scientists can run them from their offices, or even their homes, through the Internet. We are constructing a telescope of this nature: the Remote Observatory for Variable Object Research (ROVOR). The main goals of the ROVOR project are to construct a system that is robust but inexpensive, using commercially available off-the-shelf hardware and software. It will be operated through Internet technology using satellite communications instead of landlines, and will be located near St. George, Utah. ROVOR will research variable stars, bright active galactic nuclei, quasars, novae and supernovae in nearby galaxies, and gamma-ray bursts, with the latter taking top priority. No one knows the origin or nature of gamma-ray bursts, but satellites have detected them at a rate of about 1 per day, coming from all areas of the universe. The explosions are by far the most energetic events in the known universe, but they are fleeting; lasting from a few seconds to several minutes. By the time a scientist can get to a telescope and point in the right direction, the burst has usually faded away. Since it is so difficult to gather data on these phenomena, gamma- ray bursts are one of the least understood occurrences in the universe. In order for ROVOR to help alleviate the gamma-ray burst problem it must be operational before the end of 2003 when NASA deploys the SWIFT satellite, which detects and reports the locations of gamma-ray bursts within seconds of their occurrence to greater accuracy than any previous satellite. ROVOR will collect the coordinates from SWIFT and begin taking data immediately without the need for an astronomer to drive over to the telescope and manually point it in the right direction. It is anticipated that since ROVOR will be in operation during every observable night of the year, it will already be actively running when the coordinates for a gamma-ray burst are reported. ROVOR will simply halt whatever observing project it is working on at the time and immediately point to the gamma-ray burst. With this speed and efficiency, we are hoping to make great progress in the understanding of these bursts. I have been working on a team run by Dr. J. Ward Moody of BYU’s Astronomy Department to rebuild and upgrade a 22-inch telescope for use in ROVOR. Over the course of the last year, we have disassembled the entire telescope so we could rewire the electronics, clean the mirrors, and install new parts. The telescope has a 22-inch primary mirror, a 5-filter filter wheel, a temperature-sensitive automatic focuser, and an Apogee CCD for imaging objects. It is estimated that the telescope can reach a depth of 18th magnitude and cover a field of view of 10 arc minutes in the sky. My main focus recently has been to develop the software for controlling the telescope and integrating all of its components. The code to operate the telescope is written in the LabVIEW language, which is able to control all of the instruments and offers the ability to control everything remotely through the Internet. As of the time of this writing, the code has been completed for controlling the telescope motors, filter wheel, focuser, and CCD. In addition, I have helped to integrate the program for a weather station that will detect whether conditions are appropriate enough to open the telescope’s dome or not. Some programming still remains to be done, such as the ‘script’ capability where scientists can enter a list of objects to observe during the course of the night, and ROVOR will automatically sort the list and take data on its own, storing the information for the scientists to retrieve in the morning. The code also needs to be written for communication with the SWIFT satellite so ROVOR will be able to collect the coordinates of gamma-ray bursts. Once these are written and debugged, the main program will be completed and ready for use. Even in its current incomplete form, the telescope program can function enough to begin the next stage of the project—reassembling the telescope in Provo for trial runs and debugging efforts. John Ellsworth, the team’s electrical engineer, is currently wiring new electronics for the observatory and it’s components. Once the wiring is finished the telescope will be reassembled, the optics will be collimated, and it will all be tested at BYU until it runs to our satisfaction. The telescope will then be moved down to Lytle Ranch, a biological preserve run by the college of Bio-Agriculture. This BYU-owned property is located about 20 miles away from St. George, and averages twice as many clear nights per year as Provo—ideal for astronomical research. The telescope will be powered by batteries, which are charged up during the day by solar panels. We will communicate with the telescope by satellite connections, and be able to give it lists of objects to observe through the night without having to be there in person to control it. The telescope will also be equipped with a weather station so it knows whether the conditions outside are favorable for making observations. This observatory will be a great benefit to the field of astronomy. When the telescope isn’t chasing after gamma-ray bursts, it will be recording data on variable stars, galaxies, and anything else that scientists need to study. It will be operated through satellite uplinks, and will be capable of running all night without an astronomer physically operating the controls. It does not use the expensive, specialized software and equipment that other remote observatories require, but will still function just as efficiently. This exciting project must be in full operation by the end of 2003 in order to begin communications with the SWIFT satellite when it becomes operational.
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