Inspiring the next generation

A star-studded education by remote control

DAVID MCKINNON AND HIS TELESCOPEARE ALLOWING STUDENTS ACROSS THE WORLD TOSEE THE SOUTHERN SKIES. CREDIT: ANDREW MCKINNON.
DAVID MCKINNON AND HIS TELESCOPE ARE ALLOWING STUDENTS ACROSS THE WORLD TO SEE THE SOUTHERN SKIES. CREDIT: ANDREW MCKINNON.

The Southern Hemisphere’s lunar eclipse in June 2010 drew an international audience of high school students observing it over the web. They used the 12-inch (30.48 cm) diameter optical telescope operated by David McKinnon of Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, about 200 kilometres west of Sydney. The webcast was clear and uninterrupted thanks to a new 1.5 kilometre, one gigabit per second, fibre optic link, supplied by Country Energy, which connects the telescope with the Australian universities’ broadband network, AARNet.

Since it was established more than a decade ago, the telescope has introduced thousands of students to the wonders of the southern sky. They have not only seen eclipses, planetary transits across the Sun, stars, supernovas, galaxies, asteroids, comets and cosmic dust, but also human-initiated events such as the 2005 NASA Deep Impact mission, where a probe was deliberately crashed into the comet Tempel 1 at nearly 37,000 kilometres an hour. The US space agency, NASA, specifically requested David to webcast their mission.

After investing in electronic charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras that David could access and guide remotely over the net, it was a short step to using the telescope as a teaching tool to allow both primary and high school students to acquire their own images. “When they are in control of the telescope and can see their exposures within seconds, they become really motivated.”

Along with schools from the US and the Netherlands, West Kildonan Collegiate Institute in the Canadian province of Manitoba has become a regular user. Physics teacher Robin Edwards has won the province’s Best Science Educator award for his work with the CSU Remote Telescope. In addition, one of his students, Alaina Edwards, was awarded the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Science Prize for her work on variable stars using the telescope.

In 2010, the American communication company POLYCOM donated a high definition video­conferencing unit to the project. This allows promotion of astronomical events to 17 schools in Georgia and 42 in the United Kingdom together with science professional development sessions for science teachers in Wyoming, USA, and Manitoba, Canada.

PHOTO: DAVID MCKINNON AND HIS TELESCOPEARE ALLOWING STUDENTS ACROSS THE WORLD TOSEE THE SOUTHERN SKIES. CREDIT: ANDREW MCKINNON.

Charles Sturt University, Bathurst, New South Wales
Associate Professor David McKinnon, Tel: +61 (2) 6338 4235, dmckinnon@csu.edu.au, black-hole-net.mit.csu.edu.au/telescope/main.asp

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A student’s out-of-this­-world experience