Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
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mercredi 15 octobre 2003

This news release, "Grid technology helps astronomers keep pace with the Universe," is about the use of "intelligent" software agents by astronomers.

"Intelligent Agent" computer programs are roaming the Internet and watching the skies. It may sound like science fiction, but these programs, using Grid computing technology, will help astronomers detect some of the most dramatic events in the universe, such as massive supernova explosions. The Agents, created by the "eScience Telescopes for Astronomical Research" (eSTAR) project, have been deployed on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii.
The Intelligent Agent programs communicate with telescopes and each other using technology designed for the Grid -- the "next generation Internet". They make observations with the telescopes, which they can analyse and immediately follow up with further observations.
Prof. Tim Naylor, who led the eSTAR team and is also at the University of Exeter, said "We're creating a network of telescopes which can respond automatically to objects of great astronomical importance."

Here is a diagram showing how the eSTAR network operates. The Intelligent Agents access telescopes and existing astronomical databases through the Grid. (Image credit: Joint Astronomy Centre)

The eSTAR network

Does this really work? Yes.

The Agents were recently put through their paces for the first time on a large research-class telescope: the 3.8-metre United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. An Agent took live images with UKIRT, and compared them with previous infrared maps of the sky. It detected a dwarf nova -- a star which experiences sudden flares in its brightness.

In the near future, the grid will be extended to include other telescopes.

In the next few months, the eSTAR Agents will spread from UKIRT to the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (also operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre). After that, the team will expand the network to include fully robotic telescopes such as the Liverpool Telescope on La Palma and the Faulkes Telescopes in Hawaii and Australia.

For your viewing pleasure, here is a photograph of the night sky around the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT). (Image credit: Nik Szymanek)

Night sky around UKIRT

If you don't like news releases, you can find additional information in "Smart software watches the skies," published by BBC News Online.

Sources: Particle Physics & Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), October 14, 2003; BBC News Online, October 15, 2003

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