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Las Cumbres Observatory Robotic Telescopes Provide Vital Data for Recent Astronomical Discoveries

Jun 26, 2020

LCO 2m and 1m telescope enclosures at Siding Spring Observatory in Australia.

While many telescopes around the world have been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Las Cumbres Observatory has continued to operate their global network of robotic telescopes where it is safe and allowed to do so. Traditional telescopes can be dangerous for humans during a pandemic because they rely on astronomers to travel to the facility and on teams of human operators and engineers working together in sometimes close quarters. In contrast, robotic facilities operate with no human intervention, except astronomers submitting new observations over the internet, and occasional software and hardware maintenance.

“Las Cumbres Observatory is fortunate to be able to continue to provide rich data to scientists around the world during these challenging times,” said Lisa Storrie-Lombardi, the President and Observatory Director. LCO observations are featured in several recent discoveries.

A study led by Tim Bedding of the University of Sydney, using data from NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) in conjunction with LCO, was published on May 14 in Nature. The study showed that certain types of stars slightly more massive than the Sun, known as delta Scuti stars, pulsate with previously unknown frequencies. This solves a longstanding mystery, and will allow scientists to learn about their interiors by studying their pulsations through asteroseismology, analogous to how seismologists can learn about the Earth’s interior from studying Earthquakes. While NASA’s TESS satellite is sensitive to small stellar pulsations, it can’t split the star’s like up into a spectrum (a rainbow), which can provide complementary information. That was the job of LCO’s robotic NRES spectrographs.

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Artist’s impression of a Delta Scuti pulsating star, courtesy NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The stars rotate so rapidly that they are slightly flattened.

On May 26, the University of Hawai’i announced that the Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) had discovered an unusual comet. Recent data have shown that the Jupiter Trojan object 2019 LD2 is in fact a comet with an unusual orbit. The ATLAS discovery was confirmed with follow-up observations by the LCO network. The object was reclassified from an asteroid to a comet by the Minor Planet Center, as its orbit is unstable compared to Jupiter Trojans and it has a distinctive tail. Observations of this rare comet are continuing.


(Left) ATLAS image of P/2019 LD2 (indicated by two red lines) is almost lost in the field of stars, courtesy University of Hawai’i.

A study led by Monash University in Australia has observed, for the first time, the full process of an accreting neutron star reaching an x-ray outburst. While the process was previously thought to take place over 3 or 4 days, the new study revealed activity over 12 days. LCO provided rapid ground-based observations, while telescopes in space, like NASA’s Swift satellite, and the NICER instrument on the International Space Station provided ultraviolet and X-ray data that cannot be taken from Earth.


An accreting pulsar, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.