Monday, 12 January 2015

20 Years of the Bradford Robotic Telescope

Not long ago was the 20th anniversary of the first Bradford Robotic Telescope. Since the 1990s, the University of Bradford has been leading the world in remote astronomy and we're still going strong today. In this post we reveal video clips from 1995 TV, hailing the then new robotic telescope.

The first Bradford Robotic Telescope was set up on the moors above Oxenhope, a town outside Bradford. It was set up as research project into how the new emerging technology of the internet could be used to make astronomy easier. The person behind this, John Baruch, who is still director of the project to this day, had been a professional astronomer for many years. Back then this involved flying all around the world to sit at the eye-piece of a huge telescope, night after night, in the cold. Romantic though this may be, it certainly has never been comfortable.

The reason that Oxenhope was chosen was simply because it was nearby to the University. Setting up the telescope and automating it took a lot of trial and error and frequent visits.

It quickly became apparent that it wasn't just professional astronomers who could see the interest in such a piece of technology. By 1994, educators and schools had already started showing an interest in getting access to the telescope on their school computer, as this news article shows.

As well as getting the attention of the national press, John also appeared in an episode of Tomorrow's World: a long-running BBC television series on developments of the science and technology of the future. (See the bottom of this post for youtube link).

The domain name was registered in 1995. Our site was one of the first 500 on the internet.

The telescope project's presence in Oxenhope came to an abrupt end one stormy night when lightning hit a phone line some way away from the telescope, earthing itself via the computers of the observatory building. No electronics survived.

After some negotiations with the IAC in Tenerife, they agreed to give up a shipping container, which had until then been the builders' coffee-making hut, and let us put a telescope inside it. That telescope was originally an LX200, covered by a flip-off roof.

Both telescope and roof were replaced with the current configuration by the end of 2003.

With more widespread adoption of the internet by the general public came a renewed interest in this technology. By 2006 the way we were working was looking very much like it does today. A dedicated schools website was created for use in schools and by 2007 two full-time members of staff had been hired to cater to the demand for workshops from schools. A lot of the webpages still in use on the site date from around this time.

It's now 2014 and we are still working hard. Early last year we held an event in the House of Commons to celebrate the work the BRT and similar groups around the UK have done to inspire the next generation (as well as the current generation) with the science of astronomy.

To date more than 80,000 pupils and 2,000 teachers have used our telescope in theirs schools (and at home, with 35% of pupils choosing to use their logins outside school). At least 30,000 pupils have seen a member of our outreach team at the lessons and workshops we run in schools in Yorkshire and around the country all through the year. In total we have used 1,750 hours of telescope time to fulfil 260,000 requests submitted by school pupils. This has no doubt had an inestimable impact on so many children who may now be well on the way to a career in the science and technology sector.

This of course is alongside the great use amateur astronomers and interested lay-people around the world have got out of the telescope over the years, and continue to enjoy to this day.

So without further ado, here is a look back at how 1995 viewed the Bradford Robotic Telescope. With thanks to Mark Cox for supplying these videos.

Tomorrow's World

BBC News

Total Reality with the late Patrick Moore

Beyond 2000 (Australian documentary)