Intelligent Agents and Notifications in Astronomy App

jbone at jbone at
Thu Oct 23 20:29:42 PDT 2003

This looks pretty interesting...  anybody else know anything about  
this?  NB, pubs via links at bottom.



Intelligent Agents and robotic telescopes to help astronomers keep up  
with the universe

"Intelligent Agent" computer programs are roaming the Internet and  
watching the skies. It may sound like science fiction, but these  
programs will help astronomers detect some of the most dramatic events  
in the universe, such as massive supernova explosions. The Agents,  
created by the "eScience Telescopes for Astronomical Research" (eSTAR)  
project, have been deployed on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope  
(UKIRT) in Hawaii. The work is being announced at a conference in  
Strasbourg on 14th and 15th October.

Dr. Alasdair Allan, on the eSTAR team at the University of Exeter, said  
"The universe currently does things faster than we can respond to them.  
To study the most rapid and violent events in the universe, we need to  
be able to follow them quickly."

As well as supernova explosions, many other astronomical events happen  
suddenly and unpredictably. These include the detection of near-Earth  
asteroids as they move across the sky, rapid changes in the swirling  
gases being swallowed by black holes, and the subtle changes in the  
brightness of stars which may indicate planets in orbit around them.

The Intelligent Agent programs communicate with telescopes and each  
other using technology designed for the Grid - the "next generation  
Internet". They make observations with the telescopes, which they can  
analyse and immediately follow up with further observations.

Prof. Tim Naylor, who led the eSTAR team and is also at the University  
of Exeter, said "We're creating a network of telescopes which can  
respond automatically to objects of great astronomical importance."

Although this is not the first time that telescopes have been  
automated, or connected to the Internet, Dr. Allan explains "What is so  
important here is that we have developed an intelligent observing  
system. It thinks and reacts for itself, deciding whether something it  
has discovered is interesting enough to need more observations. If more  
observations are needed, it just goes ahead and gets them."

Frossie Economou of the Joint Astronomy Centre, which operates UKIRT,  
said "Our plan is for the Agents to send messages to astronomers'  
mobile phones, and even pictures if the phone supports them. That way,  
you'll be able to follow events at the telescope, no matter where you  
are in the world."

Dr. Allan continues "The Agents can detect and respond to the rapidly  
changing universe faster than any human, and make decisions to observe  
an object much faster than would otherwise be possible. Only then need  
they tell their human masters what they're doing."

The Agents were recently put through their paces for the first time on  
a large research-class telescope: the 3.8-metre United Kingdom Infrared  
Telescope (UKIRT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. An Agent took live images  
with UKIRT, and compared them with previous infrared maps of the sky.  
It detected a dwarf nova - a star which experiences sudden flares in  
its brightness.

It wasn't just technical hurdles that the team had to overcome in order  
to bring this complex system online. As Dr. Andy Adamson, Director of  
UKIRT, said "On the test night itself, we even had an earthquake on the  
island, but everyone remained undaunted. Both the eSTAR Agent and the  
telescope worked as planned."

In the next few months, the eSTAR Agents will spread from UKIRT to the  
James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (also operated by the Joint Astronomy  
Centre). After that, the team will expand the network to include fully  
robotic telescopes such as the Liverpool Telescope on La Palma and the  
Faulkes Telescopes in Hawaii and Australia.

So are the eSTAR team planning to put astronomers out of a job? Dr.  
Allan says not: "The Agents can be used to assist human observers,  
instead of replacing them entirely - augmenting their abilities to do  
science quicker, faster, and more reliably."

The eSTAR work is being presented in talks by Alasdair Allan and  
Frossie Economou at the Astronomical Data Analysis Software & Systems  
conference in Strasbourg, on the 14th and 15th October respectively.

Star trails as the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) watches  
the night sky.CREDIT: Nik Szymanek.

large.jpg (full size JPG 190kB)
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The massive star Eta Carinae. This star went through a giant explosive  
outburst about 150 years ago, suddenly making it one of the brightest  
stars in the southern sky. In the future, changes like this will be  
immediately detected and investigated by the eSTAR network. CREDIT: N.  
Smith (U. Colorado), J. Morse (Arizona State U.), and NASA.

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small.jpg (smaller size JPG 20kB)

A diagram showing how the eSTAR network operates. The Intelligent  
Agents access telescopes and existing astronomical databases through  
the Grid. CREDIT: Joint Astronomy Centre. Eta Carinae image courtesy of  
N. Smith (U. Colorado), J. Morse (Arizona State U.), and NASA.

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small.png (smaller size PNG 75kB)

Notes for editors
The eSTAR Project

eSTAR is a joint project between the Astrophysics Research Institute at  
Liverpool John Moores University and the Astrophysics Research Group of  
the School of Physics at the University of Exeter. This work was a  
collaboration between the eSTAR project and the Joint Astronomy Centre  
in Hawaii. The project is funded jointly through the UK's Department of  
Trade and Industry, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research  
Council (EPSRC) and Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council  
(PPARC) e-science programmes. More information about the project can be  
found at
The world's largest telescope dedicated solely to infrared astronomy,  
the 3.8-metre UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) is sited near the summit of  
Mauna Kea, Hawaii, at an altitude of 4194 meters above sea level. It is  
operated by the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hilo, Hawaii, on behalf of  
the UK Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.
Dwarf novae
Dwarf novae are a particular class of "cataclysmic variable" binary  
star systems. One star in the pair is a white dwarf, and the other is a  
main-sequence star possibly similar to our Sun. The white dwarf  
captures gas from its companion star due to their gravitational  
interaction, and it is fluctuations in this process that lead to  
unpredictable changes in the dwarf nova's brightness.
University of Exeter Astrophysics Group

The Exeter Astrophysics group was formed less than three years ago, but  
has grown rapidly into one of the UK's leading groups studying the  
formation of stars and planets. See for more  
information about the research group at the University of Exeter.

     * Prof. Tim Naylor
       School of Physics
       University of Exeter
       Email timn at
       Tel: +44 1392 264172
     * Dr. Alasdair Allan (in Strasbourg until 18th October - contact by  
       School of Physics
       University of Exeter
       Email: aa at
       Tel:+44 1392 264160
     * Dr. Douglas Pierce-Price (for general questions about UKIRT and  
the Joint Astronomy Centre)
       Joint Astronomy Centre, Hawaii
       Email: outreach at
       Tel: +1 808 969 6524
       Fax: +1 808 961 6516

Web links

eSTAR Project home page Project mirror page about the United Kingdom Infrared  
Telescope (UKIRT) Astronomy  
Centre public outreach site Data Analysis Software &  
Systems conference press release

[JAC outreach home]

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