High Speed Network Connectivity to a Telescope: Bringing the Electronic Universe to the Classroom

A Proposed NERO Demonstration Project

Gregory D. Bothun, Department of Physics , University of Oregon

David M. Meyer, Network Services, University of Oregon

Cliff Fairchild, Department of Physics, Oregon State University

Proposal Contents:

(note this proposal is available at URL http://zebu.uoregon.edu/nero.html)

1.0 Project Overview:

Most all scientific research is now done from the desktop WorkStation of the individual scientist. In many cases, this includes the acquisition of the data itself, across the INTERNET. An excellent example of this process is provided by modern day astronomy and digital imaging devices ( CCDs ). We propose to use a real telescope, with digital camera, as a network device which will allow students in a remote classroom to acquire and analyze real data. In this way, students can go through the same set of procedures that a scientist does in the analysis and eventual publication of the data. This program would be unique in the nation and would clearly show the educational power that high speed networking can provide. Some aspects of this project have received preliminary support from the NERO project. These are detailed in Section 7.0 below. This proposal is to upgrade our preliminary configuration by providing better ON line facilities and T1 connectivity to the Internet.

2.0 The Need for High Bandwidth

Advances in astronomy are generally made through better instrumentation and/or the opening of new wavelength windows with improvements in detector technology. The current state of the art of imaging is provided by CCDs with format 2048x2048 pixels. As each pixel is 16 bits deep, one image, stored in integer format, consumes 8 Mbytes of disk space (uncompressed). Hence, one requires a high bandwidth connection to the image acquisition site in order to deliver the image to the remote classroom in a reasonable period of time. Alternatively, one can use the resources of a host computer and X-windows connectivity to the INTERNET to perform digital analysis of the acquired image using a remote computer.

Modern Image Processing in astronomy makes use of a powerful set of programs under the IRAF (Image Reduction Analysis Facility) Package which has been developed by the National Observatories. The IRAF package itself is some 200 Mbytes big and is the only sensible package to use when trying to analyze a CCD picture that itself is 8 Mbytes big. Fortunately, IRAF can be made to have a very intuitive interface and various procedures can be easily scripted and followed by students. Hence, using professionally acquired images and excellent image processing programs, we have the capability of leading students towards discovering the same things that professional astronomers can discover, from data, and which form the foundation of the science. Use of this image processing software through X-windows would also demand high bandwidth connectivity as the image file, which are painted on a remote screen, are still quite large. Note that this mode of observing and image acquisition is now routinely used by the PI when he has time on telescopes in Chile. All the observing is done from Eugene, using the INTERNET. The connectivity between the Chilean Observatory and the telescope is maintained and funded by NASA.

3.0 The Pine Mountain Observatory

The Pine Mountain Observatory is owned, operated and maintained by the University of Oregon. The PI arrived at the University of Oregon in 1990 September as a tenured member of the Department of Physics and serves as the Director of Pine Mountain. Although nominally a research facility, recent years have seen the telescopes used exclusively for public programs. The observatory is located 32 miles S.E. of Bend, Oregon at an elevation of 6300 feet. Three domes are on the site which contain telescopes of aperture diameters 32, 24 and 15 inches. In fact, the 32-inch telescope may well be the largest telescope in the world which offers regular public access. Currently, a citizens support group called the Friends of Pine Mountain Observatory (a non-profit, all-volunteer organization) is in charge of the summer visitors program. The University of Oregon provides funds for an Observatory Superintendent and routine maintenance.

The Friends of Pine Mountain represent a unique resource which serves as a valuable conduit for the purposes of public education and awareness of astronomy in particular and science in general. Due to dramatic decreases in the cost of computing and digital imaging devices, a greatly expanded program in public education in Astronomy is now possible. Currently at the observatory we offer an Electronic Universe program in which members of the public can actually take a digital image home with them.

This existing program could be effectively coupled with the high bandwidth network connectivity to make possible remote observing at any centrally located facility which has an INTERNET connection. Such a service would have great educational value for both the general public and the students in the state of Oregon. The University of Oregon is willing to offer this resource as a testbed for the educational aspects of the NERO project. The Department of Physics has already committed $50,000 (of which $20,000 has been spent) towards modernizing the facility, including the purchase and fabrication of an advanced CCD camera system (a paper letter of suppport from the Department Chairman is available upon request).

4.0 Educational Underpinnings

It is envisioned that the Pine Mountain facility will serve as a remote scientific laboratory that will serve as a supplement for astronomy classes, no matter where they are taught in the state. There is a great deal of interest in astronomy and it perhaps is the best medium whereby science can be taught as a discovery process. Our proposed use of a live facility is a much superior alternative to putting students and teachers in front of a PC running some inferior commercial software for the purposes of analyzing canned data. In the proposed system, their will be a scientist in charge to ensure that real experiments using real data can be conducted by interested students. This can be accomplished either through the acquisition of live data or, on cloudy nights, by means of browsing the digital image archive that has been previously acquired. In fact, the PI is part of a NASA group (located at the Goddard Space Flight Centered) which has proposed the StarChild project which is a K12 outreach project that utilizes a high bandwidth network connectivity and the X-windows protocol to deliver NASA date bases directly to the K12 classroom.

There is a tremendous potential offered by a high speed network to deliver real science to a remote audience. The ability to perform unbiased and accurate observations is crucial to scientific advancement. If we are to develop a scientifically informed public that has the ability to objectively analyze important issues (such as environmental ones) we need to promote awareness of how science is done and cultivate the spirit of inquiry in people of all ages as well as skepticism. Moreover, failure to understand this central concept obscures the real nature of science as being a discovery process. Rather, science becomes a collection of 'facts' which we have learned about the physical world. This serves to perpetuate the common misconception of science; namely that it is a collection of rigorous facts, boring in its methodology, with little relevance to society. Such a total misrepresentation of science to the general public easily leads to gullibility in terms of accepting scientific data/theory as truth. This also leads to an unfortunately high level of public acceptance of pseudo-science (astrology, scientology, etc) or outrageous scientific claims (cold fusion). Without an informed public that appreciates science as a search for knowledge and not just the obtainment of knowledge, how can we ever increase public support for its practice?

It is clearly in the National interest to formulate and practice an effective strategy for deterring this view of science and revealing the true nature of science as a discovery process. One effective strategy is to make science more exciting and hands-on. All of us, regardless of our level of intellectual sophistication are intrinsically excited and curious when we discover (see or observe) something for the very first time. This excitement generally translates into motivation to learn and it is a skill which we should never lose. Children enter this world wide-eyed with excitement about discovering everything that is in it. Why should such excitement for discovering the natural world diminish over time? With the proposed high bandwidth connection to what is essentially now a digital astronomical camera, we can indeed serve science as it really is, a discovery of the unknown. Indeed, imagine the excitement this project can generate when some classroom can watch the moon literally drift across their X-windows screen.

5.0 Proposed Network Structure

Our proposed network connectivity is outlined in the figure below. Existing components are in blue and proposed components are sketched in red:

The various components of this connectivity are the following:

We emphasize that the instrumentation and infrastructure at Pine Mountain has been slowly evolving to accommodate an INTERNET connection when funding can be acquired to do so. We are basically ready to go ON line as a remote educational laboratory.

6.0 Summary Remark:

Using the available technology as embodied by INTERNET, CCDs and Workstations offers the potential for creating a vast educational resource for either the University or the K12 classroom. The specific focus of our proposal is to transform, through a high speed network connection, a resource whose educational potential is currently underutilized. Local interest (e.g. the K12 community, LANE ESD Planetarium, OMSI) in this program is high and if funded, would certainly serve as a model for others to copy. In addition, the PI already has an approved OSSHE productivity proposal which involves delivering astronomy resources through the INTERNET via the Mosaic interface to the World Wide Web . These astronomy (and other) resources on the WWW are accessed about 800 times per 24 hour period from all locations in the world. Placing Pine Mountain on the INTERNET would be a nice addition to this productivity program. Finally we emphasize that our proposal would be a unique and innovative use of the INTERNET as an educational tool. The benefits to students and the general public in Oregon offered by this program are high. Students can work with real data, draw inferences from the data and hence participate in the scientific process in a much more robust way than any textbook based classroom learning experience can offer.

7.0 Progress to Date:

We have been given approval to install the following components to enable initial 57 Kbaud connectivity. These components leverage off the existing ATM infrastructure established for the NERO project as a whole: The components are here and connectivity is in the process of being established at the Pine Mountain End. We suspect to be operational (at least at the connectivity level) by the end of the month. The PI will make 2 or 3 trips over to Pine Mountain in the coming days to insure this.

8.0 Project Budget:

Approximate costs are given below. Note, this cost is for getting the 32-inch telescope ON Line. Additional funding would be required to bring the 24-inch telescope on line as well. While there is a CCD detector available for that telescope as well, the positioning of the 24-inch telescope is not yet under computer control. The UO will cost share on this project by building a larger CCD camera and by connecting the Mountain LAN to the point of presence of the T1 circuit.

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