The Role of Small Telescopes in Modern Astronomy, October 14-15, 1996, Lowell Observatory

Unattended Automation as an Option for the Operation of Small Telescopes

Kent Honeycutt
Indiana University

Our experiences with six years of operation of a 0.41-m telescope for unattended CCD photometry of cataclysmic variables and quasars is described, as well as the newly installed 1.25-m telescope for stellar spectroscopy and fainter CCD imaging. For both telescopes all pertinent functions are automated for unattended automation, including open-up and close-down decisions, scheduling the observations, liquid nitrogen fills, focus, flat fields, finding the stars in the images, field identification, and updating the lightcurves. Typically a new data point appears on the lightcurve within 5-min of the completion of the exposure. On the 0.41-m telescope the effective magnitude range is 12 to 18.

Unattended automation has proven to quite effective in increasing the efficiency of observations and in reducing the cost of operations. However, the major motivating factor for our automation is the new kinds of science permitted by examining time scales that are otherwise unavailable under conventional scheduling policies at most observatories. Examples are presented from our long-term monitoring programs of CVs and blazars. Because of the strong science drivers we think that unattended automation should be a part of the mix of styles of operation of smaller US research telescopes, a viewpoint that we urge be kept in mind as the community continues to deliberate the future of NOAO's smaller telescopes.

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