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Hack the sky

Today you can see the night sky from your computer, using the newly announced Google Sky or a more traditional gallery like HubbleSite. But that's just one small step toward hacking the sky for yourself. Internet-based ventures such as Slooh and Global Rent-a-Scope let you operate a real live telescope and take pictures by remote control.

Once you start pointing and clicking your way through astronomical imagery online, it's not such a giant leap to point and shoot your own pictures - taking advantage of globe-girdling network connections and remote-controlled telescopes set up under wide-open skies.

Professional researchers have conducted remote observations that way for years, and now amateurs are getting into the act, said Tierney O'Dea, Slooh's chief operating officer. Slooh has set up two telescopes on the Canary Islands, and lets its 40,000 subscribers look in on the view via an online console. Slooh's users can even take turns operating the equipment and snapping digital photos.

"It's always been a challenge to us to transmit this idea to people, that this is how the professionals do astronomy," O'Dea told me today. "People understand the notion of Google Earth, and Google Sky will help convey that idea of how you can experience the night sky with your computer. If they want to take the next step, [and say] 'I'm going to explore the night sky for myself,' Slooh is the place to go."

A screenshot of Slooh's computer interface shows an

observation of the Whirlpool Galaxy.

Because of the telescopes' Canary Islands location, the nightly observations get started as early as 2 p.m. ET, and a real-time science show goes over the network "pretty much every night" at 9 p.m. ET, O'Dea said. A chat interface lets observers who are logged into the telescope at the same time talk amongst themselves and conduct joint observations.

"We program it like a really narrow-niche cable channel," O'Dea said. "We have the commentary, and we have the live views."

The Slooh community is on the lookout for scientific discoveries as well as pretty pictures: As an example, O'Dea touted Slooh's supernova search team, which she said counts a "soccer mom" and an Iraq War veteran among its members.

By October, Slooh is due to expand its coverage to the southern sky, thanks to a new telescope being put up in Chile - and eventually the venture aims to have dark skies available around the clock, O'Dea said.

Global Rent-a-Scope already has 24/7 night-sky coverage, thanks to its lineup of remote-controlled telescopes in New Mexico, Israel and Australia. The pictures typically look sharper as well - compare this Slooh view of the Eagle Nebula (a.k.a. the Pillars of Creation) with this one from Rent-a-Scope. But there is a cost difference: A yearlong subscription to Slooh costs $99, while the pricing for Rent-a-Scope time ranges from $37.20 to $145 an hour.

"For educational or occasional use for the family, Slooh will be your best bet. For more serious (and expensive) work for your own personal enjoyment, then Rent-a-Scope is your pick," amateur astronomer Charles Piazza wrote in a January review.

Another option for institutional users is offered by iBisque at New Mexico Skies. This venture makes time available at New Mexico Skies' telescope farm in blocks of 100 hours for $5,000, billable monthly. Or you can have your very own remote-controlled telescope year-round for $36,000.

The area has become quite the hot spot for telescope tourists as well as remote-control rigs. You can actually stay at New Mexico Skies and gaze at the cosmos to your heart's content through a 14-inch or 16-inch scope, at prices starting at $640 for a two-night stay. Or you can head over to the Sacramento Mountains Astronomy Park and set up your own observatory.

Among New Mexico Skies' institutional clients is the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, which runs an educational program for teachers and students. For the past decade, the NOAO has brought middle-school and high-school teachers to Kitt Peak in Arizona for hands-on telescope training - and after the training sessions, the teachers and their students can operate one of the New Mexico facility's telescopes by remote control.

Steven Croft, an astronomer and science education specialist at the NOAO, said folks around his office have already been discussing the potential impact of Google's new venture. "We were just hoping and wishing that Google Sky would get people interested and looking a little bit further into some of the programs that we're doing," he told me today.

Next month there could well be another upswing in interest: On Sept. 19, PBS is scheduled to air a documentary about stargazing titled "Seeing in the Dark," and as a follow-up to the show, yet another telescope at New Mexico Skies will be made available for student observations.

The goal is to make the thrill of astronomy available to kids, even in places where the stars can no longer be seen from the backyard. Come to think of it, that goes for grown-ups, too. After all, not everyone can drive dozens of miles out of town to find a patch of dark sky, or afford the five-figure price of a totally tricked-out telescope.

"It's a 'green' solution," Slooh's O'Dea said. "We have one telescope that thousands of people can share, and you don't have to drive anywhere to see the sights."