Las Cumbres Observatory’s one-of-a-kind, worldwide network of robotic telescopes gives scientists a capability they have never had before. The ability to make continuous astronomical observations over periods of several days means that different types of observations and new discoveries can be made. We are able to do this because our multiple telescopes, while located at sites all around the world, are connected via the internet and centrally controlled to act as a single scientific instrument. We built this network ourselves—almost entirely from scratch. It is an unprecedented achievement that took more than a decade to complete.
LCO does much more than operate this network of telescopes. In-house teams of astronomers use the network to make observations that advance cutting-edge knowledge—including the study of supernovi, exoplanets, and near-earth objects. In addition, our engineering team has been responsible for advances in robotics, networking, and data analysis. And, we put what we have discovered in the public domain, for the benefit of researchers everywhere.
From the beginning, LCO was designed as a non-profit organization whose aim was the advancement of science and education. With a big goal and limited resources, we approached the creation of our worldwide network of robotic telescopes from the perspective of a lean high-tech startup. We kept bureaucracy to a minimum and focused on doing everything in the most effective ways possible. As a result, an entirely new global astronomical instrument was built and brought into operation with far fewer resources than would have been needed to build a single massive new telescope.
Efficiency and high productivity are hallmarks of the LCO staff as well. A relatively small group of distinguished astronomers and engineers direct operations. Aided by a talented cadre of post-doctoral students, our scientists have been responsible for multiple discoveries and the publication of a large number of highly regarded scientific papers.
Throughout time, people have looked to the sky to see how things change—from the path of the sun in different seasons to the positions of stars and planets. Then, as more and more powerful telescopes were developed, astronomy became focused on making static observations and gleaning whatever knowledge we could from them.
LCO makes it possible to combine the two. It’s called time domain astronomy, which means that we can continually watch phenomena in space as they change. When we get to see the big picture as it unfolds, we are able to learn more, learn it faster, and dramatically increase our understanding of the forces that drive the universe.
As remarkable as LCO’s global network of telescopes truly is, the system that ties them together as a single instrument is every bit as incredible. At its heart sits an amazing bit of artificial intelligence called the scheduler. It was developed by LCO engineers, and there’s nothing else quite like. Working without human intervention—which would only slow it down—LCO’s internet-based scheduler takes requests for observations from multiple sources, analyzes everything from competing requests to the weather at each telescope site, then directs individual telescopes to make the desired observations, and compiles the results. It does this all with a level of speed and precision that would not have been possible even a few years ago.