It's totally mind blowing! A while back I was lucky to be granted access to the Faulkes Telescope Project in Hawaii and Australia. I remember thinking how accessible astronomy had become as I embarked on my first observing run with the Hawaiian telescope (pictured here).
I was in one of my usual coffee shop haunts, hooked up to the web on my iPad and using an (almost) idiot-proof interface to control a multi-million pound (dollar) telescope on the other side of the Earth! It really doesn't get any easier than that.
The great thing is that this system is accessible to schools all over the world, making it one of the most incredible teaching resources to inspire the next generation of astronomers. Look behind the scenes and it's not just two telescopes, there's many more and the number is growing.
The Faulkes Telescope Project is one of the several educational affiliates of Las Cumbres Observatory Global Telescope Network (or LCOGT for short) whose overall goal is to provide access to professional grade telescopes across the web, ultimately from one centralized control system.
Currently, three telescopes are operational but the dream is big. Within the next two years, a further 40 telescopes will be commissioned -- all controlled robotically.
Edward Gomez, LCOGT Education Director, tells Discovery News: "It's a colossally ambitious project. Creating one telescope and running it remotely is hard enough, but creating over forty including their enclosures, weather stations, cameras and code to control it all is monumental."
Although these are big ambitions, it seems to be working. With schools signed up across the world, it's bringing astronomy alive in the classroom and giving students a feel for real science. Not only are students benefiting; access to such advanced equipment is proving a real benefit to public outreach too -- as Dara O'Briain demonstrated on BBC Stargazing LIVE in January 2011.
To demonstrate how easy it really is, I've teamed up with the outreach team at LCOGT especially for Discovery News and set up a Twitter poll so you can vote on the objects you want me to observe during my next observing run on the Faulkes Telescope in Australia on Friday, 19th August at 1 p.m-2 p.m. GMT (9 a.m.-10 a.m ET).
You can cast your vote here and see the results as they are downloaded live from the telescope here.