ESA Science News

Once upon a time astronomers were passionate star-lovers who were eager to climb up a mountain just to get
the clearest view of the night sky. Not anymore. It seems that the climbing — though not the passion — can
now be avoided. On 12 January a supernova explosion was discovered by an Italian amateur astronomer who
was operating a telescope from his home computer, via the Internet. And it is not the first time it has
happened: the same group found another supernova in the same way just before Christmas. “Of course we are
very excited about these findings!”, says Alessandro Dimai, one of the happy discoverers.

These findings signal the arrival of new ways to do astronomical research. With remote-controlled telescopes
experts envisage a more efficient use of the instruments, more collaborations among scientists and a more
even and fair distribution of knowledge. “For decades we’ve been learning about remote control of telescopes in
the space missions. Ground-based observatories are now actively trying to implement it, and astronomers will
certainly benefit from it”, says ESA engineer Daniel Ponz, based at ESA’s Villafranca station in Madrid, who is
involved in a project to develop these techniques.

At 05:30 on the morning of 17 December, Dimai, a member of the Italian association ‘Associazione
Astronomica Cortina’, was unable to sleep. As usual he sat at his computer and got connected with the
Osservatorio Astronomico del Col Drusciè, at 1,785 metres altitude, and 10 kilometres away from his home.
The 0.5 metre telescope in the observatory is currently the only automatised, remotely-accesible telescope in
Europe: its users can open its dome, point the telescope and get and archive the image from home.

Dimai took about twenty images before sunrise and reviewed them quickly. He realised that in one of the
galaxies, the spiral M61, there was a little star that was missing in other pictures of the object. “We have been
observing galaxies for years, searching for supernovae. We are used to doing it”, says Dimai to explain how
was able to identify the new bright point among all the others in M61.

The astronomer had to react quickly to his discovery. A supernova is the violent death of a massive star, which
has consumed all the ‘fuel’ in the nuclear reactions that make it shine and is therefore unable to produce energy
any longer: as a result, it collapses under its own gravity and explodes so violently that for days its brightness
outshines that of the galaxy. The sooner scientists can observe the phenomena, the more data they will get
about it. Dimai immediately warned several observers all over the world via the Internet and in less than 24
hours the California University confirmed his suspicions: the little new star was indeed a supernova. The
discovery was formally announced by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), which last year recognized
200 supernovae.

The latest, brightest and farthest

The story was repeated again a few nights ago, on 12 January, with amateur astronomer Marco Migliardi as
the discoverer. ‘His’ supernova is one of the firsts of the year 2000, and the IAU has catalogued it as
“sn2000C”. It is brighter than the one in M61, although it is farther away: 300 million light- years away in the
Lynx constellation — Dimai’s supernova was 60 million light-years away in the constellation of Virgo.

These two supernovae are the first ever discovered with a remote-controlled telescope. The Col Druscie
telescope can be operated in this way thanks to a system implemented by engineer Sergio Pascolini
(, which allows its users simply to ask observing time by e-mail. Dimai, a 38 year-old bank
employee by day, says that “the programme is very easy to use. It allows us to do more observations and
hence the probability of making a discovery is higher”.

Ponz shares his views. “Remote observations is at present a very active area of research also in professional
observatories. It will bring an important change in the way we do astronomy, bringing the telescopes closer to
the community”.

Pioneering experiment

Last August he collaborated in an experiment to control a professional telescope, the NOT, in the Observatorio
del Roque de los Muchachos in the island of La Palma (Canary Islands, Spain), from ESA’s Villafranca station in
Madrid. The test, pioneered in Europe and in the frame of a project called ‘Dynacore’ (funded by the European
Commission), started with observations directed by astronomers in Madrid — from the Laboratorio de
Astronomía Espacial y Física Fundamental at the ESA’s station; control then went to a group in the
Osservatorio di Trieste (Italy), ending up in the Lund Observatory (Sweden).

“We are changing the classical and romantic image of the astronomer isolated on top of a mountain, searching
through the sky”, Ponz says. “But that unique experience, in my opinion, is very similar to what we felt when we
saw the Ring Nebula obtained by the NOT telescope that we were controlling from Villafranca”.


* More info from Associazione Astronomica Cortina

* Images info from Associazione Astronomica Cortina


[Image 1:]


Superova SN1999gn, discovered 17 December 1999 by Alessandro Dimai, using the observatory Helmut Ullrich
del Col Druscié (CROSS). Image courtesy of Associazione Astronomica Cortina.

[Image 2:]


Supernova SN2000C, discovered 12 Jaunary 2000 by Marco Migliardi, using the observatory Helmut Ullrich del
Col Druscié (CROSS). Image courtesy of Associazione Astronomica Cortina.