Posted: February 26, 2018
Contemporary investigation of the heavens is getting a boost from recent advances in the use of robotic telescope technology, an expert in the field observes.
Russ Genet, a pioneer in the field, says the evolution of robotic telescopes has led to “radical new discoveries in astronomy”. Genet, who started out forty years ago, as a graduate student at the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT), developed early versions of the devices using TRS-80 microcomputers, and ordinary BASIC programming. He created his own facility, the Fairborn Observatory, named after its location in Fairborn, Ohio. These first experiments “allowed the computer to control the whole telescope,” Genet recalls, “and I spent the next few years—until October of ’83—designing robotic telescopes.” The National Science Foundation (NSF) took an interest in the research Genet and his colleagues were doing, “and they encouraged us to build some more”.
Genet is currently a Research Scholar at California Polytechnic State University, and Director of the Orion Observatory. Over his long career, he’s achieved some amazing breakthroughs, including the first robotic telescope in continuous operation, completed in 1983, and perfecting techniques using these instruments to make photometric studies of “eclipsing binary stars with dark spots”, and other extrasolar bodies. By the 1990s, Genet had an array of seven telescopes, all remotely computer-controlled, doing observations in the high Southwestern desert. “When TV cameras [for telescopes] became affordable in the ‘90s, we really leapt forward,” Genet reflected. “It took us a year to get those early telescopes to operate reliably,” the astronomer notes, “But after that, it was phenomenal.”
Genet has authored (and co-authored) many books on computer control of telescopes over the years, adding a generous body of knowledge on robotic telescopes, becoming an authority in this area of astronomy. This led to the emergence of precision automated photometry, the practice of taking readings of the sky, using remote, computer-guided telescopes, operated by a single user.
Genet’s Fairborn Observatory also worked with the Smithsonian Institution and various universities, “getting humans out of observatory buildings, and eliminating systems unnecessary for telescope operation,” as Genet’s colleague, Louis Boyd, wrote in a summary of their work. Today, robotic telescopes have come into their own, with modern instruments like PlaneWave’s CDK-700 model. “PlaneWave did a good job,” Genet says, “doing the D on the CDK-700. It has turned out to be a really good robotic telescope.”
The scientist continues to chart eclipsing binary stars—one of his specialties—and searches for extrasolar planets using the techniques and equipment he helped develop. He also welcomes students from Cal Poly and Cuesta College (where he teaches astronomy) to hos observatory, opening the skies to a new generation of researchers.
Genet’s matchless work has brought our knowledge of the cosmos forward by leaps and bounds, setting the stage for even grander discoveries in the future. The stars still await us.