Web site puts PCs nearer to heavens

Astronomy: Subscribers will have online access to mighty telescopes for shared use and even personal control

December 04, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The trouble with cheap amateur telescopes is that you can't see much through them. Expensive telescopes really do bring the heavens into your back yard. But they're, well, really expensive.

Mike Paolucci is betting that frustrated stargazers will spend $50 a year for access to a telescope bigger and better than anything they could ever hope to buy. Especially if it came with a guide, and they never had to stand in the cold to use it.

Paolucci, 33, a self-described "serial entrepreneur" based in New York City, is preparing for a Christmas Day launch of Slooh.com, a live, Internet-linked observatory for people with a dabbler's interest in astronomy.

(The name, he had to explain, melds slew, the astronomers' term for swiveling a telescope, with oooh. )

"I designed it for a guy like me," Paolucci said. "I'm interested in space as a layman, but I don't own a telescope, and I live in a big city. I don't have access to dark night skies, or the free time to make it one of my main outdoor activities."

For their 50 bucks, he said, Slooh.com members will get a year of unlimited access to five- to 15-minute "group missions" planned by Slooh.com personnel or voted on by members online. They'll also get 15 minutes of private time to steer the observatory toward whatever they want to see. (For $100, they'll get 90 minutes.)

Plenty of people would love to look through a powerful telescope, Paolucci said in a telephone interview. "But there's no easy way to do it."

"People go out and spend three, four hundred dollars [for a small telescope] and think it's their way to get in touch with the cosmos," he said. "And it's a big disappointment. It takes expertise; there's light pollution; they just have bad weather. ... It doesn't give you that much payoff."

With a quarter-million dollars of start-up money, Paolucci built a pair of observatories, 7,900 feet up Mount Teide, on Tenerife, in Spain's Canary Islands. They share the thin, dry air and dark skies there with the Institute of Astrophysics, a professional observatory that is part of the multisite European Northern Observatory.

Inside each of his 10-foot domes, Paolucci has installed a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope with a 16-inch mirror, a digital camera and robotic pointing system, all linked to users via the Internet.

He declined to be more specific, saying he didn't want to "give away the formula" for his venture. But "this is equipment that no hobbyist is going to be able to afford. ... The very best, or very largest commercially available telescope equipment."

Technological advantage

Rick Fienberg, editor in chief of Sky & Telescope magazine, said, "My guess is we're talking about Meade 16-inch [0.4-meter] LX200GPS telescopes, which retail for close to $30,000 - definitely beyond what most serious amateurs can afford."

From Paolucci's hints, Fienberg also surmised that Slooh.com has a Santa Barbara Instrument Group camera, widely regarded as the best digital camera available to amateurs.

"A 16-inch telescope with a CCD [charge-coupled device] camera at a dark site can `see' pretty much any astronomical object you've ever heard of," he said. And because digital cameras compile more detail with long exposures, Slooh.com observers will actually see more on their monitors than they ever could looking through the telescope with their own eyes.

"It's more like a long-exposure color photo," Fienberg said. "Even the best nebulae and galaxies appear colorless in a 16-inch scope when viewed by eye."

Users will be able to toggle between wide-angle and zoom views. And to the silence of deep space, Paolucci is adding audio tracks - from mood music to recorded commentaries on the science, mythology and poetry behind the objects in view.

Most laymen "do want somebody to show them what's great and cool, the mythology attached to an object," he said. "Otherwise it's rather daunting."

On their private observations, members will be able to slew the telescope around the sky by remote control, from their home computer.

The Canaries are five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, so observers on the East Coast will be able to explore whatever's visible above the islands from about 3 p.m. until 1 a.m. in the East. West Coast users can look between noon and 10 p.m.

If Slooh.com proves popular, Paolucci hopes to add filtering equipment to allow daytime looks at the sun. Eventually, he'd like to build robotic observatories around the world to permit 24-hour operations in both hemispheres.

Astronomy by remote control isn't new. Professional astronomers frequently work with data gathered and transmitted to their computers by observatories in orbit, or at remote sites around the world.

"Even when they go to the top of a mountain," Paolucci said, "they're sitting in a different room, looking at computer screens."

Competitors exist

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