If most high school students ever get to see the Horsehead Nebula, it’s by looking at a book, or a slide in science class.

But thanks to a telescope network spearheaded in part by a Pennsylvania youth, students from across the country now can view this nebula and countless other celestial formations from any internet-connected computer.

Schuylkill Valley High School sophomore Ryan Hannahoe punches coordinates on a keyboard, and waits a few moments for a telescope under crystal-clear New Mexico skies to swing toward the dramatic dust cloud marked on astronomical charts as M33.

Back in Pennsylvania, where lights from Leesport and nearby Reading would make such observing impossible, Hannahoe keys in commands to set the telescope’s digital camera for a 200-second exposure. Fifteen exposures later, he has downloaded enough data to create a magazine-quality image of the horse-like formation in the constellation Orion.

Hannahoe made the picture of one of amateur astronomers’ favorite targets by remote control, 1,500 miles from the telescope site in the Southwest, via a Student Telescope Network he helped create.

“This is a big move for amateur astronomy,” said Hannahoe, 16, chairman of the Youth Activity Committee of the Astronomical League, a national coalition of astronomy groups. “Amateur astronomy is dying because of light pollution. There are not that many kids involved.”

“The typical school has nothing at all, they look at a picture in a book. The labs that we do, they’re on paper,” he said. “Here, we’re taking a picture and doing actual research, which is really cool, basically learning to be an astronomer.”

The students are learning to observe the way professional astronomers in search of dark skies often do, using automated facilities built in remote corners of the earth or, in the case of the Hubble telescope, in space.

Hannahoe worked with professor Robert Stencel at the University of Denver, the Software Bisque astronomy software company, and the New Mexico Skies astronomy resort to develop the student network.

In a pilot project that started in February, about 500 student groups from the United States, Canada, Mexico, and as far away as Australia and China have used it, he said.

Software Bisque, in Golden, Colo., developer of astronomy software and a robotic telescope system, has been working with New Mexico Skies to create a remote telescope network to lease observing time to institutions such as universities and community colleges for astronomy teaching, as well as to amateur astronomers on an hourly basis.

Mike Rice, owner of New Mexico Skies, said the service will be especially valuable for schools in urban areas with skies too brightly lit for observatories to function. Meanwhile, Stencel helped obtain a grant to connect one telescope at the resort to the free network for high-school students in a pilot project lasting from February to May.

“Ryan and I over the past two to three years have been conspiring about ways to get more young people more access to telescopes,” said the professor, familiar with Hannahoe from Astronomical League activities.

“A lot of students have trouble seeing a constellation, let alone an object such as a galaxy. In big cities, light pollution can be a big issue,” Stencel said. He added, “It sure is great to be able to observe from the comfort of an office rather than being up on the roof freezing.”

Rice said New Mexico Skies is far away from big city lights: 100 miles north of El Paso, 160 miles south of Albuquerque, 16 miles from Cloudcroft, N.M., population 592, “with a mountain range in between,” and three miles from Mayhill, N.M., population nine.

“There are not shopping centers in Mayhill,” he said. “We have a very dark location with pristine skies … and 260 clear nights a year. You see the center of our galaxy—the summer Milky Way—and more stars than you’ve ever seen in your life.”

Wherever they live, young astronomers can log on to the student network, view a star chart, type in the name or coordinates of M31, the Andromeda galaxy next to ours; M33, the Pinwheel Galaxy; M51, a dramatic swirl of two galaxies, or any area they want.

The Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with 14-inch mirror tracks on its robotic mount; the state-of-the-art, charge-coupled device digital camera, with its extremely light-sensitive 1-1/2-inch square computer chip, senses the image; and the student downloads the digital image at home.

Stencel is increasingly busy coordinating the use of the network, granting two-hour blocks to students who register on the web site. He said grants will be sought to continue and expand the network when the pilot project money runs out.

Hannahoe said he would like to add a dozen telescopes at New Mexico Skies, one in the mountains of Bolivia in clear seeing conditions at 17,000 feet, and one in Australia to the network.

Gary Becker, director of the Allentown, Pa., School District’s planetarium, has had student enthusiasts join him for nighttime sessions on the telescope network, sometimes until midnight.

By providing nighttime images during daytime in the Western Hemisphere, Becker said, “The instrument in Australia is going to allow us in North America to use the Student Telescope Network as an in-school device.”

Possible student projects include observing the “light curves” of asteroids, the changing brilliance of reflected light that lets observers calculate the speed and direction of an asteroid’s spin, Becker and Hannahoe said.

Related links:
Student Telescope Network
http://www.youthinastronomy.org

New Mexico Skies
http://www.nmskies.com

Software Bisque
http://www.bisque.com