Skynet Program Helps Youth Explore the Universe

By Kelly Ni
Kelly Ni
Kelly Ni
December 30, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
Epoch Times Photo
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Skynet system includes these robotic telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Skynet Junior Scholars will involve middle school students in astronomy with the hopes of fostering interested toward STEM subjects. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Through a new program called Skynet Junior Scholars, middle school students will soon have their minds focused on the universe. 

High expertise-level telescopes will be at the students’s fingertips, and they will be able to control robotic telescopes located in places such as the Chilean Andes, Europe, Australia, or the United States—all through a web portal called Skynet, which is a growing network of robotic telescopes operated by students, faculty, and staff at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC–CH).

It all has been made possible by a meeting of astronomers and scientists, outreach coordinators in educational astronomy and more throughout the nation, a $1.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and other groups like 4-H and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

The University of Chicago (UC) is taking the lead on the program; they have the optical telescopes, which are normal physical light telescopes. Richard Kron, an astronomy and astrophysics professor at UC, is heading up the project, and he works at the Yerkes Observatory. 

The National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.V., also a partner in the program, has the radio telescopes—giant satellite dishes that see the invisible universe in the form of radio waves. 

“It’s light, but it’s not light you can see with your eyes,” according to Dan Reichart, director of the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network and the Morehead Observatory and physics and astronomy professor at UNC–CH.

According to Kron, to get young people to enter the STEM subjects is to get them to see those subjects as a human endeavor. Credit for advances in technology should go to the people behind them, not to computers and telescopes. As impressive as the equipment sounds, “It’s basically done by people,” Kron said.

As a scientist, Kron would like to mentor young people and involve them in what he is doing. 

Involvement could take many forms, but one of Kron’s examples is to have young students write up a description of a project that they could do that would be aligned with a professor’s work. 

While rockets and space remain hugely popular among young children, some grow out of it, said Kron, who apparently did not. 

“Stars and galaxies,” have a “broad popular appeal,” said Kron, adding that appeal can be fostered into the STEM subjects. 
Even using a simple, inexpensive telescope in an empty, unused parking lot can help young people learn about tracking and collecting data from above. 

Mastering the Hardware

At UNC–CH, staff have figured out a way to use a large chain of robotic telescopes that are able to fix their own problems. The trick is mastering the robotic telescopes with hardware, according to Reichart. 

“Not just making them do what you want them to do, but identifying every single way they can fail, software fails, hardware fails—and we use some commercial software. Basically, we’ve written software that controls commercial software that controls the commercial hardware,” said Reichart. 

Commercial hardware refers to things like the telescopes, cameras, and domes. Reichart said that they identified every way the hardware could fail, and they then trained their software to be smart enough to fix most of the problems that may suddenly come up.

If you have just one robotic telescope, it might wake you up once a night needing intervention. “We built so many of them that its not acceptable for us, we would be up constantly,” said Reichart.

Reaching Out

While Skynet is used by professionals, post-doctorates, and sometimes high school and elementary school students, this is the first time Skynet will be directed toward middle school students. 

As the nation’s interest in STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—grows and as our innate inquiry toward the universe persists, the Skynet Junior Scholars program may reach students on a national level if successful. 

“The idea is that they will test out the program in West Virginia, Chicago, and North Carolina and see if it motivates people to go into STEM disciplines,” said Reichart. Nearly 1,400 middle school students will explore the universe over the next three years in the Skynet Junior Scholars program through weekly meetings or summer camps. 

Epoch Times Photo
The Morehead Telescope, housed in the dome of the Moorhead Observatory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a key component of the new Skynet Junior Scholars program. (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

If middle school students take to the program like the undergraduate students did at UNC–CH, then the future of the program could be quite telling.

Before using the global chain of robotic telescopes, students used small telescopes on site. “You had to fight with them to get them to work—or get weathered out. Then you had to come back inside and do some boring back up exercise,” said Reichart.

All of that changed when they started to use telescopes in Chile—the number of astronomy majors increased by 240 percent in just 4 years at the university, according to Reichart.

While the hope is to get youth introduced into STEM, Reichart said that there is always something indistinctly cool to so many people about astronomy. “You are talking the biggest, largest masses, the biggest explosions, the greatest expanses of time, the beginning of time, black holes, colliding galaxies,” said Reichart.

The problem, according to Reichart, is that people have a love for astronomy but limited resources, making the universe seem inaccessible. “Many people from a young age are … interested in the universe, they just don’t have any way to access it,” he said. 

Reichart remembers watching “Star Wars” at 4 years old on the big screen watching the planetary missions in the ’70s and ’80s, and getting a first-hand look at the Voyager mission photos that came over the wire when he visited his dad, a local newspaper editor. For him, astronomy was what he always wanted to do. 

Reichart said that people now can read about anything on the Internet. 

“Three clicks of the mouse and you are observing a nebula or galaxy,” said Reichart, adding that observing the universe should be easy, free, and accessible for large numbers of people to explore.

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Kelly Ni