Rad Astronomy: Interview with Global Telescope Network Director Kevin McLin

By September 9th, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Comment 1

Dr. Kevin McLin is the Director of the Global Telescope Network at Sonoma State University. (Courtesy Photo)

Dr. Kevin McLin is the Director of the Global Telescope Network. (Courtesy Photo)

Whether tackling the mysteries of the universe or studying birds in the backyard, citizen science projects rely on collaboration between scientists, volunteers, teachers, students, and many other dedicated participants.

One great example from our Project Finder is the Global Telescope Network, an informal association of amateur astronomers who partner with scientists to conduct cutting-edge astronomy research. Using small telescopes around the world, Global Telescope Network members observe and analyze astronomical objects related to several NASA missions. Members participate in a variety of activities, including gamma-ray burst photometry analysis, surveillance data analysis, and galaxy monitoring, and by donating telescope time.

I recently had the opportunity to ask Dr. Kevin McLin, director of the Global Telescope Network at Sonoma State University, a few questions about the network, its members’ contributions, and what excites him about the field of astronomy.

Dr. McLin, who makes up the Global Telescope Network?

It’s a fairly far-ranging and diverse group of people. We have some university observatories that are members, and we have amateur astronomers who have their own backyard observatories. In addition, we have high school observatories. It’s a mix of professional, amateurs, and educators.

Can you describe how a member of the Global Telescope Network accesses, controls, and gets images from the robotic GORT telescope?

We share time over the Skynet system headed by Dan Reichart at University of North Carolina. We use the Skynet interface to give access to our student members who do not have their own observatories. These are both high school and undergraduates, typically. The Skynet system allows the students to submit jobs to a queue, and then to retrieve their images when the jobs are complete. They don’t have to stay up all night with the telescope this way either, which can be an important part of a project for a high school student.

One idea behind the Global Telescope Network is to add citizens’ visible-light observations to the x-ray and gamma-ray data from space-borne missions. But how much do visible-light observations actually add?

Adding visible light, as well as radio and other wavelength data, to the x-ray and gamma-ray data is extremely important. Objects like Active Galactic Nuclei are thought to emit their radiation primarily through synchrotron and inverse-Compton processes. These emission mechanisms are very broad-band, so the emission of radio and optical can be intimately connected to what is going on in the x-ray and gamma-ray bands. In some instances, it’s the same region and the same electrons producing the radiation seen from radio, through optical all the way up to x-rays. Having observations covering the entire energy regime is really necessary if you want to disentangle how the source is emitting its light.

GLAST Optical Robotic Telescope is a small ground-based telescope used by the network (Image: Hume Observatory).

GLAST Optical Robotic Telescope is a small ground-based telescope used by the network (Image: Hume Observatory).

Can you describe a particular insight about these odd celestial objects that resulted from the contributions of volunteers in the network?

This is a tough question to answer. The way the network is set up, I just announce to members when there is something for them to do. Usually, this means when there is a concerted multi-wavelength observing campaign on some Active Galactic Nuclei. Other than routine monitoring of Active Galactic Nuclei, that is pretty much what the network was built to do. Once I have sent out the announcement, I am not really involved with the work done by network members. It’s very informal that way. I know that some scientific papers have been published from these observing campaigns, but I and other Global Telescope Network members are a small part of a large effort for those.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get started in amateur astronomy?

Find a dark place away from lights, get yourself a book of constellations, and start learning your way around the sky. A telescope is not necessary at first. In fact, it might be a hindrance. But just learning the names of the stars and constellations, how they move through the night and throughout the year, that is how I got started. Sometimes, I would use binoculars to view star clusters and other fairly bright objects. But once you get a telescope you will be ahead of the game if you know how to point it and where to find things.

Of course, these days they have global positioning system telescopes that point great even if you don’t know the sky. But those are sort of a cheat. They are great tools if you already know the sky, but, if you don’t, they will prevent you from ever learning how to find your way on your own, and that was one of the things I most enjoyed about astronomy. It still is, in fact.

What else still excites you about the field of astronomy?

What I like about astronomy is that it takes us outside ourselves and puts us in a much larger context. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to get bogged down in Earthly concerns, but in learning astronomy you get to know how insignificant, and at the same time how special, the Earth is. Astronomy can really broaden your view of the world, both in terms of space and time. It also reveals totally unknown aspects of the universe, things that we would never experience on Earth… Usually that’s a good thing. I don’t think I would like to experience an active galaxy or a supernova on the Earth!

Interested in joining the Global Telescope Network?  Find out how you can get involved in this cutting-edge astronomical research.

  • Physics Groupie

    GTN is a great resource! To learn more about the “Open Telescope Revolution” check out my overview article at The Science Lifestyle Blog:

    http://www.physicsgroupie.com/2010/03/open-telescope-revolution.html

    I recently used LightBuckets.com with great success and enjoyment. You all should give one of these wonderful resources a try.

    Daniel
    The Physics Groupie