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Practical Techie: Web offers stargates to wonders of the Universe

We all like to gaze at the night sky now and glimpse its astronomical wonders. Ideally, it should be through a powerful telescope, but most of us lack one on our balcony or rooftop. The World Wide Web takes care of that for us.

There are virtual telescopes through which we can peer into the evening skies and witness celestial body alignments, a starburst, meteor showers, maybe a planetary transition, and even an unidentified flying object. These telescopes can be linked to in real-time or an archived view.

GAZING — One of the most interesting projects for star gazing is the Virtual Telescope Project, operated since 2006 by the Bellatrix Astronomical Observatory in Italy. The site offers a powerful set of real, robotic telescopes remotely accessible online through the Internet for your own astronomical experience. Interestingly, despite the technologically advanced instrumentation of the telescopes at Bellatrix, the online system is easy to use. The visitor can access real images of the sky or scientific data, plus amazing night sky tours.

HOW — Science savvy, newbies, or amateur astronomers will find the virtual Telescope an amazing tool. To access a telescope in real-time, the user must acquire “telescope time.” A minimum of one hour is required. Then one must select the Telescope (17″ or 14″) and book the observing session. It is advised that the visitor book at least 24 hours in advance. All sessions have technical support from the scientific staff.

Any acquired images during a session become the property of the user. The project may ask for access to the visuals in the case of very important astrophysical events. If this sounds too scientific, the visitor can instead join a public online observation session commented live by astrophysicists. This will also allow meeting astronomical friends from around the globe in the site’s community dubbed “Astronomers Without Borders.”

COSTS — Offered services are mainly free of charge, while some exclusive activities such as live sessions require a small donation. The project makes it clear it is not a commercial venture but requires a donation to keep the project alive. If a person requests a telescope to take images, they must pay a fee for the real-time sessions timed by the minute. Costs depend on the event, date, and duration. Novice, amateur, or professional astronomers from 85 countries constantly use the Virtual Telescope Project, including 11 gazers from Puerto Rico.

EVENTS — The project performs live viewing sessions during top astronomical events such as the recent super moon in August 2022 or the opposition of planet Saturn and invites the public to watch for free. The location of telescopes is available daily, excepting sky conditions and weather in Ceccano, Italy. A live, all-sky view above the site and satellite maps are provided 24/7. The images are astounding, as seen on the project’s Facebook page, which has more than 152,963 virtual “likes.” 

POESY — The Virtual Telescope Project is not all science. It has a poetic side with phrases such as: “Everybody involved with astronomy knows very well that at night while looking up, many feelings and considerations arise spontaneously, questions, emotions, answers, and dreams. Virtual Telescope shares many words and thoughts inspired by the sky’s wonders — also, interesting news on the Universe.

“At the Virtual Telescope, we strongly believe that the stars are far more than a scientific topic. This view is shared with many people, so we are happy to welcome your sentiments.” The project’s testimony page collects poetical user reactions to the experience.

True passion for the sky. In some future columns, the Practical Techie will review other Web sites that open to the wonders of the Universe through virtual astronomical observation.

Author Details
Author Rafael Matos is a veteran journalist, a professor of digital narratives and university mentor. He may be contacted at cccrafael@gmail.com.

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