With a few clicks of his mouse, astronomer Dan Reichart operates a telescope that’s five thousand miles away. In his Chapel Hill office, a projector screen displays a cluster of telescopes on a sunny mountaintop fifty miles west of La Serena, Chile.

Reichart and his team of software engineers have spent much of the past eight years developing Skynet, a network of robotic telescopes around the world programmed to take observations while astronomers sleep.

“Now we’ll open the dome,” he says, typing a few strokes on his laptop. The telescope’s microphone pipes a mechanical whirring sound into the dimly lit office, and the dome on the screen slits down its center and folds open.

“Can you hear the wind?” Reichart asks.

For now, there are eleven telescopes in the network, but Reichart says this number will increase over the next year. The team is building two more telescopes at the Chilean site and four more in Australia.

Reichart and his team wrote the software that remotely controls the telescopes. Users log in and place observational “orders” on the Skynet web interface. When they wake up in the morning, they will have images and data from telescopes on the other side of the world.

This is an attractive option for astronomers, especially if they’re based in areas with poor visibility. Too much light pollution in Chapel Hill? No problem. Try one of the Chilean telescopes. If it’s daytime in Chile, it’s dark in Italy. Greater geographic coverage makes it more likely an astronomer will find good observing conditions.

But professional astronomers are not the only ones on Skynet. Since its launch in 2005, more than twenty thousand elementary and high-school students have used the system. The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center featured Skynet in its Zoom In exhibit, and astronomy students at twelve universities access Skynet on a regular basis.

Reichart’s team is still figuring out the best ways to include the general public, but the goal is for Skynet to be open to anyone with the internet and the interest. “People of all ages can get excited about astronomy,” Reichart says. “But it is the most difficult science to access. The simplest equipment is still expensive.” His vision is to build a system that not only helps researchers but also opens exploration of the heavens to everyone. 

Dan Reichart is a Bowman and Gordon Gray Associate Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Arts and Sciences.