When the sun drops one degree below the horizon, Skynet domes open and the enclosed telescopes slew into position to begin taking calibration images.

Skynet and PROMPT

We began building “Skynet” and “PROMPT” in 2004. Skynet is sophisticated telescope control and queue scheduling software. Skynet can control scores of telescopes simultaneously, allowing them to function individually or as an integrated whole. Furthermore, Skynet can control most commercially available telescope hardware, and provides participating institutions with easy-to-use web and API interfaces. Participating institutions are not charged, but instead contribute 10% of each of their telescopes’ time for Director Discretionary science (such as gravitational-wave event follow up) and education. The Skynet Robotic Telescope Network has grown to number ≈20 telescopes, with another ≈10 scheduled for integration over the next few years. Skynet telescopes range in size from 14” to 40” and span four continents and five countries. Skynet also includes a 20-meter diameter radio telescope.

Funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, but also by NASA and the the Mt. Cuba Astronomical Foundation, PROMPT is a subset of the Skynet Robotic Telescope Network, consisting of our highest-quality telescopes at our highest-quality sites. Originally only at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, PROMPT now spans four and soon five dark sites, in Chile, Australia (for near-continuous observing in the southern hemisphere), and Canada (for full-sky coverage).

Skynet telescopes can be sequenced such that one, or multiple, telescopes expose while others read out and save, permitting high-cadence observing without data gaps. This has proven particularly useful for occultation observations. PROMPT observations from May 4, 2013, in combination with observations from other sites, were used to  measure  the temperature profile of Pluto’s atmosphere. PROMPT observations from June 3, 2013 (center chord, left), again in combination with observations from other sites, resulted in the  discovery  of two rings around the  Centaur   Chariklo .

Skynet telescopes can be sequenced such that one, or multiple, telescopes expose while others read out and save, permitting high-cadence observing without data gaps. This has proven particularly useful for occultation observations. PROMPT observations from May 4, 2013, in combination with observations from other sites, were used to measure the temperature profile of Pluto’s atmosphere. PROMPT observations from June 3, 2013 (center chord, left), again in combination with observations from other sites, resulted in the discovery of two rings around the Centaur Chariklo.

Skynet/PROMPT was originally built to carry out simultaneous multi-wavelength observations of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) when they are only tens of seconds old (to date, Skynet has observed 88 GRBs within 15 – 70 seconds (90% range) of spacecraft notification, detecting 50 optical afterglows on this timescale). However, our mission is now considerably broader: Skynet now serves state, national, and international user communities as a broad-based platform for small-telescope science (GRBs; GW sources; blazars; supernovae and novae; pulsating, variable, and binary stars; exoplanets; trans-Neptunian objects and Centaurs; asteroids and near-Earth objects) and education. Skynet data are now published in peer-reviewed journals every ≈20 days, including five times to date in Nature and Science, so far resulting in nearly 3,700 citations. 

To date, roughly 50,000 students have used Skynet, with most now participating in three large, NSF-funded programs: (1) Skynet Junior Scholars (SJS), which is being carried out in partnership with 4-H, for middle- and high-school-age students; (2) Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy (IDATA), for high-school students exploring computational thinking in astronomy and helping to develop image-analysis software for blind and visually impaired users; and (3) Our Place In Space! (OPIS!), a Skynet-based laboratory curriculum for undergraduates in small to very large, introductory survey courses, which has now been adopted by over a dozen institutions.