Press Release

“I, RoboNet” – intelligent telescopes survey the violent skies

By SpaceRef Editor
September 14, 2004
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British astronomers are celebrating a world first that could
revolutionise the future of astronomy. They have just begun a project to
operate a global network of the world’s biggest robotic telescopes,
dubbed ‘RoboNet-1.0’ which will be controlled by intelligent
software to provide rapid observations of sudden changes in astronomical
objects, such as violent Gamma Ray Bursts, or 24-hour surveillance of
interesting phenomena. RoboNet is also looking for Earth-like planets,
as yet unseen elsewhere in our Galaxy.

Progress in many of the most exciting areas of modern astronomy relies
on being able to follow up unpredictable changes or appearances of
objects in the sky as rapidly as possible. It was this that led
astronomers at Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) to pioneer the
development of a new generation of fully robotic telescopes, designed
and built in the UK by Telescope Technologies Ltd.. Together the
Liverpool Telescope (LT) and specially allocated time on the Faulkes
North (FTN), soon to be joined by the Faulkes South (FTS), make up

Commenting on the need for a network of telescopes RoboNet Project
Director, Professor Michael Bode of LJMU said “Although each telescope
individually is a highly capable instrument, they are still limited by
the hours of darkness, local weather conditions and the fraction of the
sky each can see from its particular location on planet Earth.”

Prof. Bode added “Astronomical phenomena are however no respecters of
such limitations, undergoing changes or appearances at any time, and
possibly anywhere on the sky. To understand certain objects, we may even
need round-the-clock coverage – something clearly impossible with a
single telescope at a fixed position on the Earth’s surface.”

Thus was born the concept of “RoboNet” – a global network of
automated telescopes, acting as one instrument able to search anywhere
in the sky at any time and (by passing the observations of a target
object from one telescope to the next in the network) being able to do
so continuously for as long as is scientifically important.

The first mystery RoboNet will examine is the origin of Gamma Ray
Bursts (GRBs). Discovered by US spy satellites in the late 1960’s,
these unpredictable events are the most violent explosions since the Big
Bang, far more energetic than supernova explosions. Yet they are
extremely brief, lasting from milliseconds to a few minutes, before they
fade away to an afterglow lasting a few hours or weeks. Their exact
cause is still unknown, although the collapse of supermassive stars or
the coalescence of exotic objects such as black holes and neutron stars
are prime candidates. To study GRBs, telescopes need to be pointed at
the right area of the sky extremely quickly.

In October this year, NASA will launch a new satellite named Swift, in
which the UK has a major involvement, and which will pinpoint the
explosions of GRBs on the sky more accurately and rapidly than ever
before. The co-ordinates of each burst will be relayed to telescopes on
the Earth, including those of RoboNet, within seconds of their
occurrence, at the rate of one event every few days. Telescopes within
the UK’s new RoboNet network are designed to respond automatically
within a minute of an alert from Swift. It is in the first few minutes
after the burst that observations are urgently required to enable
astronomers to really understand the cause of these immense explosions,
but until now such observations have been extremely difficult to

RoboNet’s second major aim is to discover Earth-like planets around
other stars. We now know of more than 100 extra-solar planets. However,
all of these are massive planets (like Jupiter) and many are too near to
their parent star, and hence too hot, to support life. RoboNet will take
advantage of a phenomenon called gravitational microlensing (where light
from a distant star is bent and amplified around an otherwise unseen
foreground object) to detect cool planets. When a star that is being
lensed in this way has a planet, it causes a short ‘blip’ in the
light detected, which rapid-reacting telescopes such as the RoboNet
network can follow up. In fact, the network stands the best chance of
any existing facility of actually finding another Earth due to the large
size of the telescopes, their excellent sites and sensitive

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) have funded
the establishment of RoboNet-1.0, based around using the three giant
robotic telescopes at their sites across the globe. The “glue” that
holds all this together is software developed by the LJMU-Exeter
University “eSTAR” project, allowing the network to act
intelligently in a co-ordinated manner.

Dr Iain Steele of the eSTAR project says “We have been able to use and
develop new Grid technologies, which will eventually be the successor to
the World Wide Web, to build a network of intelligent agents that can
detect and respond to the rapidly changing universe much faster than any
human. The agents act as “virtual astronomers” collecting, analysing
and interpreting data 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, alerting their
flesh-and-blood counterparts only when they make a discovery.”

If successful, RoboNet could be expanded to the development of a
larger, dedicated global network of up to six robotic telescopes.

Professor Michael Bode of Liverpool John Moores University adds “We
have led the world in the design and build of the most advanced robotic
telescopes and now with RoboNet-1.0 we are set to lead the way in some
of the most challenging and exciting areas of modern astrophysics”.

Notes for Editors


Images are available to download from

Further images and information can be found on the RoboNet website:

The Telescopes

The Liverpool Telescope (LT) became the world’s largest operational
robotic telescope earlier this year. Sited at the international
observatory site on top of a mountain on La Palma in the Canary Islands,
the LT has a main mirror 2m across and is a UK national research
facility operating around 50 different research programmes for
astronomers from several countries. See
for more details.

The LT has now been joined by the Faulkes Telescope North (FTN),
situated atop another mountain, this time on the island of Maui in
Hawaii. FTN is a clone of LT, both telescopes being designed and built
on Merseyside by Telescope Technologies Limited, but unlike the LT, the
Faulkes Telescope North is dedicated primarily to educational use,
supported by the Dill Faulkes Educational Trust. Later this year, the LT
and FTN will be joined by the Faulkes Telescope South (FTS), sited at
Siding Spring, New South Wales, Australia as the third in the trio of
giant British-built robotic telescopes. See and for more information.


A UK press briefing will be held in London during October, date TBC. A
further press briefing which will have a live link into the launch will
be held at the National Space Centre, Leicester in October. See for details of UK


“Intelligent Agent” computer programs, with the capability to make
decisions, watching the skies may sound like science fiction, but these
programs, using Grid computing technology, will help astronomers detect
some of the most dramatic events in the universe, such as massive
supernova explosions. The Intelligent Agents, created by the “eScience
Telescopes for Astronomical Research” (eSTAR) project, have been tested
on the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii. See for more details.


RoboNet-1.0 / Liverpool Telescope:

Prof Michael Bode

Astrophysics Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University

Twelve Quays House, Birkenhead, CH41 1LD, UK

Tel.: +44 151 231 2920/2919, mobile: +44 7968 422360, email:


Dr Iain Steele

Astrophysics Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University

Twelve Quays House, Birkenhead, CH41 1LD, UK

Tel.: +44 151 231 2912/2919, email:

Faulkes Telescopes:

Dr Paul Roche

School of Physics and Astronomy, Cardiff University, 5 The Parade,

Cardiff CF24 3YB

Tel: +44 2920 875121, email:

PPARC Press Office

Julia Maddock

Tel 01793 442094


The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the
UK’s strategic science investment agency. It funds research,
education and public understanding in four broad areas of science –
particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.

PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and
studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers
access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of
international bodies such as the European Organisation for Nuclear
Research, CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern
Observatory. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on
La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology
Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National

PPARC’s Public Understanding of Science and Technology Awards Scheme
provides funding to both small local projects and national initiatives
aimed at improving public understanding of its areas of science.

SpaceRef staff editor.