I've written about what might happen when digital-imaging telescopes get connected to the Internet. With the advent of good CCD-based cameras and digital motion controls, hooking a telescope up to the net is a fairly straightforward task. But while I mused about a peer-to-peer network of digital scopes, I didn't think about a different model: the telescope as mainframe.
Arnie Rosner, however, saw the possibilities inherent in connecting a big, expensive telescope to the net. Four telescopes, in fact. In the dark skies of New Mexico, all available for rent over the web. Once you schedule your time, all you need to do is enter in the name of what you want to see and the telescope slews to it. You can take long-exposure CCD images, just sit back and watch, or even hop from object to object.
These telescopes are far beyond what an interested hobbyist would be able to use, beyond what even some academic astronomers can regularly get their hands on. Even if you had the resources, if you live in an area without clear, dark skies, the images available through these scopes would never be possible. In years past, only a small number of people could control telescopes like these; now, with the web, anyone can. If you would love to be able to do deep-sky photography, or even just gaze upon "live" (if speed-of-light-delayed) images of stellar and galactic objects, you can now do so without spending tens of thousands of dollars.
While seeing the colors of a star-cradling nebula or the fossil light from galaxies which died out long before humans ever evolved on Earth may not grant you insights in how to change the world, it is a humbling experience, one we all should have.
(Image from Rent-a-Scope)
Now here's an interesting possibility of extension on that: Can you make a virtual telescope for visible light the way you can with radio telescopes? In other words, can you make a telescope with resolution/image quality better than the hubble by having 1000 amateur astronomers across the hemisphere take pictures of the same thing at the same time, and then combine the image data over the net?
I think this actually isn't true, beause radio waves are orders of magnitude longer than visible waves, which is why big telescopes are advantageous for radio. And 1000 amateur astonomers would mostly be in sub-optimal viewing conditions, even if it did get averaged out it'd probably still lack the clarity of one image from a really good source. But still, might be useful for something...
Very cool! It would be even better to be able to buy satellite time to look at Earth -- not just order a picture but have some control.
Jane, I'm afraid that there's really not a lot of control one could safely have of a satellite in orbit. You could pick what to take a picture of from the flight path of the satellite, but few sats have rockets on board to allow serious movement (i.e., orbital changes).
Yeah, Jamais, it would have to be a network. Way too expensive now, but maybe microsatellites will make it possible in the future.