International Space Station (ISS) Amateur Telescope - Status
By Mac Gardiner
Why should we even consider placing an amateur telescope on the ISS? What makes it so uniquely valuable with all of the effort involved, toward a program whose success is still problematical? What makes the whole effort worth while? Finally, could we amateurs be counted on to do our part in running the system, should the system be placed in space and made available to amateurs?
Studies of the Cosmos, spearheaded by the Hubble Program, are now centered on its early life, where events were dynamic, beautiful, and creative. Such can only be seen clearly from observations in space, and those involving UV can only be viewed from space. The ISS AT will expedite this. The ISS-AT covers all locations on earth, and some part of the cosmos is always available for viewing, even during daytime. No clouds can obscure transient celestial phenomena. It is always available. Any ground station operation is labor intensive. An amateur operation will not only save money, but it will cause the enthusiastic workers (most of whom are voters) to be salesmen for the effort as well. The ISS can use support and programs that have low continuing costs. ISS is international, and so is amateur astronomy. In particular, Canada, Japan, Germany, Russia, UK, and Italy have active and eager members who could influence their respective governments toward increased participation. Education, from early awareness, through participatory group projects, to advanced independent research would be improved. The geographical location of the student is immaterial, and the chance to explore and share is high.
So far, the Astronomical League (AL) made up of 24,000 amateurs in the USA, feels emphatically that the answer is YES!! to all the above work and options.
1. The Astronomical League is committing a significant percentage of its resources and energy into this project, selecting Orville Brettman (past President of AL) as Project Manager of the program and allocating $14,000 for miscellaneous annual costs associated with a pro bono program. This is the largest project ever undertaken by the AL, and it is steadily and quietly working toward its goals, and Orv has built up an impressive staff of around 15 very active volunteers to chair various responsibilities. NASA considers that its financing and resource allocation situation is well in hand, but they have expressed interest and concern about the League’s capability to man and run the ground system used to process observation requests, deliver programming schedules to the ground control system,process the raw data received, generate, collate, distribute and file the astrophotographs.
2. The League’s response to this concern and interest has been to build a ground-based analog of the space system, run it and prove, both to themselves and NASA, that the League is competent and willing to carry out such a project. It is called Project ALPHA and consists of a 16’ Autonomous Telescope with two CCD cameras, housed in a remote multi-telescope Winer Observatory facility in Sonoita, AZ, and a satellite link to the Dyer Observatory at Vanderbilt University at Brettwood, TN where operations are based. 3. Communications, administration and data handling are handled by the League web site server system. The equipment was loaned or donated by interested contractors and individuals, and the major continuing expense is that of the Winer Observatory. 4. The system is up and running at Sonoita, AZ. Beta tests have been made, students are using the system, and one student research project has been carried out. Typical turn around time from request to available file is about a week. In no way, other than conceptual, is this a clone of the space-borne telescope. However, its administration and operation is a precursor to that required for the ISS-AT system. In less than a year, the system was brought to operation; and lessons learned are being incorporated as the structure for the full system which would ultimately include both ground and space elements. In this way, requests that can be handled by the ground unit will relieve the load on the space component.
The Hubble Telescope is expected to be phased out in the 2010-2015 time period, and its successor, the Next Generation Telescope, will not be available until around 2020. It could well be that the ISS-AT would end up being the only visual spectrum astrophotographic system operating in space during that time! Amateurs would have the equipment and the experience to lead in this research!