University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory looking at robotic telescopes

The Rothney Astrophysical Observatory has been scanning the night skies southwest of Calgary for decades, looking for the tiniest dots of light that might unlock some secret of the universe.

Next year will mark its 50th anniversary. Dr. Phil Langill, a professor at the university and director of the observatory, couldn’t be prouder.

“It’s one of the top university-run observatories in Canada,” Langill said. ”We have a gigantic suite of research-graded equipment and detectors. We have beautiful skies to be able to do some interesting scientific work. It’s a playground for our students to learn the nuts and bolts of astronomy.

“It’s just really, really fun to be here.”

The observatory has three experiment-graded telescopes that scan the skies on clear nights. They are already programmable through the internet, which allows students in China to access them for their own research.

But Langill says the observatory is poised for a technological breakthrough.

“Now we are trying to make our telescopes robotic, which means that they have a mind of their own. They know when it’s clear. The dome will open up, the camera will take pictures all night long.

“And then the computer will process the data so that when the astronomer wakes up in the morning and rubs their eyes, their data is all ready for them on their computer. It’s a pretty spectacular thing.”

The Baker-Nunn telescope was donated to the university after becoming obsolete in its original purpose of tracking Russian satellites for the U.S. Army during the Cold War. All these years later, it’s become cutting edge once again.

“The Baker-Nunn telescope is part of a robotic global network of telescopes now,” Langill said. “Still got a few bugs to iron out, but it’s working sweet and I would really like a lot of the telescopes around here to have the same capability.”

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