There are currently 23 robotic telescopes of three different sizes which form the LCO network. There are eleven 1-metre telescopes, which are about the size of a family car. There are two 2-metre telescopes, which are about the size of a double-decker bus. And there are ten 0.4-metre telescopes which are about the size of R2D2 from Star Wars. The telescopes are described using the size of the largest mirror inside them, for example if the mirror is one metre across, it is called a 1-metre telescope.
The robotic telescopes are dotted across 7 locations around the world. There is an observing site in Hawaii (Haleakala), in Texas (McDonald), in Chile (Cerro Tololo), in the Canary Islands (Tenerife), in Israel (Tel Aviv), in South Africa (Sutherland) and in Australia (Siding Spring).
The Universe is an enormous place and the objects we look at through the telescopes are very, very far away. This means they are very faint. To see faint objects we need the best possible conditions: clear skies (good weather and high altitude), dark skies (no light pollution from town and city lights) and no interference (remote location).
Telescopes are often build in the middle of nowhere to ensure the best conditions, such as in a deserts, atop a high mountain or far from any towns or cities. This makes the telescopes very hard to access.
By making the telescopes robotic, anyone in the world can use them at any time without having to travel for days each time they want to make an observation. It also means we can build telescopes all over the world, giving up a clear view of the entire night sky and ensuring we always have an eye on the sky (when one telescope goes to sleep, another wakes up!).
The LCO telescopes can be used to look at all sorts of night sky objects (they can’t be used in the daytime to look at the Sun). The telescopes are powerful and designed for looking at objects in the very distant Universe, such as colourful clouds of cosmic gas and dust (nebulae) and galaxies. They are also used to search for new alien world and dangerous asteroid that could collide with Earth! Things you can’t look at with these telescopes include the planets and the Moon.
Knowing how long to observe an object for is possibly the most confusing aspect of observing. The table below will give you some hints on how to decide on what value to use for the LCO 0.4m-meter telescopes:
|Object Type||Typical Visual Magnitude||Lower limit (seconds)||Usual exposure range (seconds)||Better images (seconds)|
|Galaxy||13||30||60||at least 120|
|Nebula||13||30||60||at least 120|
|Globular Cluster||13||30||60||at least 120|
Do not image Moon Too large and too bright
For more detailed information about what exposure time to use, have a look at our Exposure Time Estimating guide.
Let’s do a quick experiment, open the nearest book and hold it in front of your face so it’s touching your nose. Try to read a line like this. You’ll notice that it’s very difficult because the words are too close to your face. A telescope works like a magnifying glass, zooming in on objects in the sky. Unfortunately, the Moon is already so big that if we pointed the telescopes at it, it would be like putting the book too close to our face — we couldn’t see any details.
A light year is a way of measuring distance. Distances in space are gigantic, so it’s not practical to use traditional units to measure them. For example, the closest star to Earth (beside the Sun) is around 38,000,000,000,000 kilometres away — which is 4.2 light years. Light travels at 300,000 kilometres per second. Therefore, a light second is 300,000 kilometres. A light year is the distance that light can travel in a year – 9.4 trillion kilometres.
Now that you know what a light year is, you might be surprised that with your naked eyes you can see almost 3 million light years away (that’s 3,000,000). With a telescope you can see billions of light years out into the cosmos. But just because an object is far away doesn’t mean it’s interesting to look at, some of the most beautiful objects are right here in our Galaxy!
When we see images taken with these telescopes it’s like we’re looking down the eyepiece, although a little while after the picture was taken. When the telescope is busy collecting the picture we can’t look down the eyepiece, but we can watch the telescope move from target to target via webcam feed halfway across the world - which is almost as cool!
The robotic telescopes can be used to look at all sorts of beautiful astronomical objects, from gigantic groups of stars to clouds of cosmic dust and swirling galaxies. The telescopes are also used to do many types of scientific research. For example, scientists use them to study asteroids in our Solar System (and make sure none of them are going to crash into Earth!), to search for alien worlds and to watch as massive stars explode!
Big professional telescopes like these are expensive, each one costs millions of dollars to build, not the kind of instrument you could buy for your back garden. But we are giving many of you access to nine of them for free!