Students Collaborate Globally to Connect Telescopes into a Network Using IBM Watson IoT Platform

3 min read

What is the purpose of the Internet of Telescopes?

Telescopic follow-up of transient astronomical events is one of the most desirable and scientifically useful activities in modern observational astronomy. From a scientific perspective, pinpointing a transient event can be essential to discovering more about the source, either by directing more powerful telescopes to observe or maintaining a near-continuous record of observations as the transient evolves. Very often, transients are poorly localized on the sky and telescopes have a limited field of view; this means that pinpointing the transient source is often a daunting task. Perhaps most importantly, the number of large telescopes on the planet is small, and they cannot be commandeered to randomly search for every transient of interest.

The Cognitive Telescope Network (CTN) proposes to set up an intelligent network of telescopes that can autonomously react to transient astronomical events of interest. Examples of such events are gravitational waves, gamma-ray bursts and supernovas. There are Sky Survey observatories that detect such events. For gravitational wave events, there are two detectors – Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) at Hanford, Washington, and Livingston, Louisiana, and others around the world. CTN aims to capture events for sources like these, select the right set of telescopes and instruct them to take photographs of the events.

Selecting the right architecture

For a project of this scale and magnitude, selecting the right architecture that can scale is extremely important. The solution is currently being developed on the IBM Cloud using multiple services that are readily available. Multiple universities have already contributed to this open-source effort, including North Carolina State University (NCSU), Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), Northwestern University (NU) and Western Sydney University (WSU). The project is being sponsored by the IBM Center for Advanced Studies and IBM Space Tech initiative. 

Here's what Professor Jeff Terry has to say about the project using the IBM Cloud: “Our students at Illinois Tech have benefited tremendously by working with IBM software engineers to assist in building the Cognitive Telescope Network. We have made great progress in safely controlling astronomical devices, such as telescope mounts, cameras, etc. We continue to add features to improve the usability of the system because safety during operation is the ultimate goal. In addition, we have been building tools for the display and processing of resultant astronomical images. It is exciting to consider the science that may come from these citizen science measurements with the computational power of IBM added to the raw images.”

The telescopes range from university telescopes to amateur telescopes contributed for the development of the framework. The communication between the telescopes and the applications running on the IBM Cloud take place through the IBM Watson Internet of Things (IoT) Platform. In fact, each telescope is a device on the platform with bi-directional communication so that commands may be sent to the telescope and status and astronomical pictures may be sent back to the cloud. The pictures are stored on the IBM Cloud Object Storage and may be analyzed and processed there.

The cataloging of the images is powered by IBM Cloud Annotations (formerly Watson Visual Recognition) and the processing of the pictures is based on custom-built algorithms. Weather is a critical factor in the selection of telescopes and taking observations. The IBM Weather service on the cloud is used for this purpose. The network also provides a chatbot interface to the system using Watson Conversation and other related services:

Figure 1. Architecture of Cognitive Telescope Network.

Figure 1. Architecture of Cognitive Telescope Network.

IBM Cloud for Education and the Cognitive Telescope Network

IBM Cloud for Education provides the front end for the Cognitive Telescope Network (CTN) framework, allowing students and faculty to conduct Senior Design or Capstone project workshops by customizing an image and giving granular access to the students. The network may also be used to teach classes on several technologies on the IBM Cloud. All the development tools necessary for the development of the network can be pre-installed and be made available to the students to make the class successful (e.g., Eclipse, Java, Node.js, Visual Studio Code, IBM Cloud CLI, OpenShift Container Platform, Terraform, etc.).

Docker-based container environments may be set up for the students and faculty for local development on the cloud and deployments to the OpenShift cluster.

This environment is extremely important for the Telescope Commander component that is responsible for the slewing and other commands to the telescope to be tested using the INDIGO server in simulation mode before connecting to a physical telescope:

Figure 2. IBM Cloud for Education for front-end support.

Figure 2. IBM Cloud for Education for front-end support.

Why have IBM Cloud for Education support your academic class

IBM Cloud for Education provides a complete solution to run your class on the IBM Cloud. You can fine-tune and schedule the student and instructor virtual machines required for the class. You can also integrate with any of the advanced capabilities — including IBM Blockchain, Watson Services, and Internet of Things (IoT) — in a single, easy-to-access environment that can federate the same student logins that the university and academic institutes use. Click here and see if IBM Cloud for Education is the right solution for your institute.

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