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Seeing things the eye can't
Scripps Howard News Service


June 02, 2005

Snapping around to catch a view of a seconds-long astronomical explosion is enough to give a normal telescope whiplash.

So scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have invented a new kind of telescope to see them: a whiplash-proof robotic "thinking telescope."

The device - which the lab is still tweaking - can change position in seconds without straining its sensitive mechanical components and then crunch data from its observations for astronomers while they're tucked away in bed getting a good night's sleep, said Tom Vestrand, a scientist on the project.

"The technology will completely make astronomers obsolete," Vestrand said happily and then paused.

"Well, almost obsolete," he added.

The project started this year but has its origins in a robotic telescope program that began in 1997 at Los Alamos to look at gamma ray bursts.

"A gamma ray burst is a big explosion - the biggest explosions since the universe began," Vestrand said. "We think it's the end point of the life of special kinds of stars - bigger and older than blue giant stars, from the earliest phases of the universe."

By studying gamma ray bursts, astronomers can learn more about how the universe formed and grew to its current state. Catching them is quite a trick, though, because the phenomenon typically lasts only from a fraction of a second to at most a few minutes, said Jim Wren, another scientist developing the telescope's hardware.

"The telescope has to monitor tens of thousands of stars at the same time and tell very quickly if something's changing - that's something a person looking at the sky just couldn't do," Wren said.

The thinking telescope uses a satellite to monitor and track changes in stars. If it finds a gamma ray burst, it transmits the data within seconds to a ground-based telescope at the lab. That telescope has to whip around in another second or so to zero in on the phenomenon and record it, the scientists said.

"We had to change the telescope mount, because that sort of response time can vibrate the components like a tuning fork," Vestrand said. "You have to be very careful. It requires a fair amount of engineering to get that right."

The hardware part of the equation is finished and working. The next step is creating software that can analyze what the scope sees, digest it for astronomers and suggest other objects to look at.

"Right now we still have a human in the loop to analyze the data, but we're close to that next generation where we won't need that anymore," Vestrand said. "It's essentially running right now, actually, but we're still testing it to make sure it doesn't give us false detections."

When finished, universities and the public will get access to much of the technology for astronomy purposes, which could open a new range of scientific discovery, he said.

"It will let us make observations that were never possible before," Vestrand said. "In the past, looking for things that flash - that go bump in the night - you could only do that after it was over. Now with this technology, the computer can find it, and we can observe it much more effectively. There's certainly an advantage to getting there on time."

Of course, the thinking telescopes also have more confidential "programmatic" military functions, Vestrand said.

"Programmatic means we don't want to talk about it, but the technology is also being developed for monitoring things that are a bit more nearby than gamma ray bursts," he said cryptically, hinting at its use for surveillance.


E-mail Sue Vorenberg at svorenberg(at)

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