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Show Me Stars!

Aug 9, 2011

Back in January, comedian Dara Ó Briain co-presented a UK TV show named Stargazing Live that was shown at prime time on the main BBC TV channel. Several million people tuned in for three nights to watch live updates from telescopes around the world. LCOGT, and the UK-based Faulkes Telescope Project, helped Dara use Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii to take some images which ended up on the show.

Last week, Edward Gomez (LCOGT Education Director) was in touch with Dara about more observing using Faulkes North. This wasn't for a TV show but Dara had enjoyed using the telescope in January and was interested in using it again. Dara asked his Twitter followers if they wanted to join in and suggest objects to look at during a live observing session. He suggested people tag their tweets with #ShowMeStars.

Today, at 12 noon GMT, Dara's session started. Ed and I had prepared a special Show Me Stars web page to display the results, the tweets, a live webcam view from Hawaii and a Virtual Sky. Shortly after Dara's first tweet our web server started to struggle and many people (including us) were getting blank pages as the server failed to keep up with the demand. We'd been expecting a bit of traffic but it turns out we hadn't anticipated the amount we got. At our office in Cardiff, we immediately started lightening the load on the server. I moved some of our files (CSS, Javascript and images) off onto Amazon's Web Services (AWS). One of the benefits of AWS is that it can scale with demand so it coped admirably with the sudden increase in traffic during the session. It noticeably improved things and the complaints about blank screens soon reduced.

Dara's first observation of M27 the Dumbbell Nebula came through at 12:19 GMT. It had taken a little while because he did a very long exposure. Although a lot longer than necessary (540s in each colour filter) the results are really good. He then went on to get lovely spiral galaxy NGC 6946 and finally an image of Comet Garradd (C/2009 P1) with only 19 seconds to spare before his session ended!

During the hour, the Twitter stream went a little crazy and tweets are still coming in 2 hours after it finished. Many thousands of people were able to view the webpage, ask questions, and experience a bit of the universe during their lunch hour. It was stressful for those of us at LCOGT - and for Dara! - but a brilliant event and I can't wait for us to do another in the future.

When asked about his observing experience Dara said, "Many thanks to all at Las Cumbres Observatory for the kind offer of time on Faulkes Telescope North. I feel guilty that their reward was for me to crash their servers by directing too many people to them. Still no good deed goes unpunished. If it's any comfort it's also a sign of how many people chose to spend their lunchtime with me, traversing the skies, looking at the awe-inspiring sights of the cosmos. And well done to LCOGT for offering that access halfway across the world."