In the last few years the ubiquitous availability of high bandwidth networks has changed the way both robotic and non-robotic telescopes operate, with single isolated telescopes being integrated into expanding "smart" telescope networks that can span continents and respond to transient events in seconds. The Heterogeneous Telescope Networks (HTN)* Consortium represents a number of major research groups in the field of robotic telescopes, and together we are proposing a standards based approach to providing interoperability between the existing proprietary telescope networks. We further propose standards for interoperability, and integration with, the emerging Virtual Observatory.
We present the results of the first interoperability meeting held last year and discuss the protocol and transport standards agreed at the meeting, which deals with the complex issue of how to optimally schedule observations on geographically distributed resources. We discuss a free market approach to this scheduling problem, which must initially be based on ad-hoc agreements between the participants in the network, but which may eventually expand into a electronic market for the exchange of telescope time.
Over the past four years we have seen continued advancement in network technology and how those technologies are beginning to enable astronomical science. Even though some sociological aspects are hindering full cooperation between most observatories and telescopes outside of their academic or institutional connections, an unprecedented step during the summer of 2005 was taken towards creating a world-wide interconnection of astronomical assets. The Telescope Alert Operations Network System (TALONS), a centralized server/client bi-directional network developed and operated by Los Alamos National Laboratory, integrated one of its network nodes with a node from the eScience Telescopes for Astronomical Research (eSTAR), a peer-to-peer agent based network developed and operated by The University of Exeter. Each network can act independently, providing support for their direct clients, and by interconnection provide local clients with access to; outside telescope systems, software tools unavailable locally, and the ability to utilize assets far more efficiently, thereby enabling science on a world-wide scale. In this paper we will look at the evolution of these independent networks into the worlds first heterogeneous telescope network and where this may take astronomy in the future. We will also examine those key elements necessary to providing universal communication between diverse astronomical networks.
Linking ground based telescopes with astronomical satellites, and using the emerging field of intelligent agent architectures to provide crucial autonomous decision making in software, we have combined data archives and research class robotic telescopes along with distributed computing nodes to build an ad-hoc peer-to-peer heterogeneous network of resources. The eSTAR Project* uses intelligent agent technologies to carry out resource discovery, submit observation requests and analyze the reduced data returned from a meta-network of robotic telescopes. We present the current operations paradigm of the eSTAR network and describe the direction of in which the project intends to develop over the next several years. We also discuss the challenges facing the project, including the very real sociological one of user acceptance.
The internet has brought about great change in the astronomical community, but this interconnectivity is just starting to be exploited for use in instrumentation. Utilizing the internet for communicating between distributed astronomical systems is still in its infancy, but it already shows great potential. Here we present an example of a distributed network of telescopes that performs more efficiently in synchronous operation than as individual instruments. RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response (RAPTOR) is a system of telescopes at LANL that has intelligent intercommunication, combined with wide-field optics, temporal monitoring software, and deep-field follow-up capability all working in closed-loop real-time operation. The Telescope ALert Operations Network (TALON) is a network server that allows intercommunication of alert triggers from external and internal resources and controls the distribution of these to each of the telescopes on the network. TALON is designed to grow, allowing any number of telescopes to be linked together and communicate. Coupled with an intelligent alert client at each telescope, it can analyze and respond to each distributed TALON alert based on the telescopes needs and schedule.
Fast variability of optical objects is an interesting though poorly explored subject in modern astronomy. Real-time data processing and identification of transient celestial events in the images is very important for such study as it allows rapid follow-up with more sensitive instruments. We discuss an approach which we have developed for the RAPTOR project, a pioneering closed-loop system combining real-time transient detection with rapid follow-up. RAPTOR's data processing pipeline is able to identify and localize an optical transient within seconds after the observation. The testing we performed so far have been confirming the effectiveness of our method for the optical transient detection. The software pipeline we have developed for RAPTOR can easily be applied to the data from other experiments.
The mining of Virtual Observatories (VOs) is becoming a powerful new method for discovery in astronomy. Here we report on the development of SkyDOT (Sky Database for Objects in the Time domain), a new Virtual Observatory, which is dedicated to the study of sky variability. The site will confederate a number of massive variability surveys and enable exploration of the time domain in astronomy. We discuss the architecture of the database and the functionality of the user interface. An important aspect of SkyDOT is that it is continuously updated in near real time so that users can access new observations in a timely manner. The site will also utilize high level machine learning tools that will allow
sophisticated mining of the archive. Another key feature is the real time data stream provided by RAPTOR (RAPid Telescopes for Optical Response), a new sky monitoring experiment under construction at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).
The Rapid Telescopes for Optical Response (RAPTOR) experiment is a spatially distributed system of autonomous robotic telescopes that is designed to monitor the sky for optical transients. The core of the ystem is composed of two telescope arrays, separated by 38 kilometers, that stereoscopically view the same 1500 square-degree field with a wide-field imaging array and a central 4 square-degree field with a more sensitive narrow-field ``fovea" imager. Coupled to each telescope array is a real-time data analysis pipeline that is designed to identify interesting transients on timescales of seconds and, when a celestial transient is identified, to command the rapidly slewing robotic mounts to point the narrow-field ``fovea'' imagers at the transient. The two narrow-field telescopes then image the transient with higher spatial resolution and at a faster cadence to gather light curve information. Each ``fovea" camera also images the transient through a different filter to provide color information. This stereoscopic monitoring array is supplemented by a rapidly slewing telescope with a low resolution spectrograph for follow-up observations of transients and a sky patrol telescope that nightly monitors about 10,000 square-degrees for variations, with timescales of a day or longer, to a depth about 100 times fainter. In addition to searching for fast transients, we will use the data stream from RAPTOR as a real-time sentinel for recognizing important variations in known sources. All of the data will be publically released through a virtual observatory called SkyDOT (Sky Database for Objects in the Time Domain) that we are developing for studying variability of the optical sky. Altogether, the RAPTOR project aims to construct a new type of system for discovery in optical astronomy---one that explores the time domain by "mining the sky in real time".
The Rapid Telescope for Optical Response (RAPTOR) program consists of a network of robotic telescopes dedicated to the search for fast optical transients. The pilot project is composed of three observatories separated by approximately 38 kilometers located near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Each of these observatories is composed of a telescope, mount, enclosure, and weather station, all operating robotically to perform individual or coordinated transient searches. The telescopes employ rapidly slewing mounts capable of slewing a 250 pound load 180 degrees in under 2 seconds with arcsecond precision. Each telescope consists of wide-field cameras for transient detection and a narrow-field camera with greater resolution and sensitivity. The telescopes work together by employing a closed-loop system for transient detection and follow-up. Using the combined data from simultaneous observations, transient alerts are generated and distributed via the Internet. Each RAPTOR telescope also has the capability of rapidly responding to external transient alerts received over the Internet from a variety of ground-based and satellite sources. Each observatory may be controlled directly, remotely, or robotically while providing state-of-health and observational results to the client and the other RAPTOR observatories. We discuss the design and implementation of the spatially distributed RAPTOR system.