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A proposal submitted by an international team, led by professor Dan Reichart in the department of physics and astronomy in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences, has been selected to receive a $3 million grant from the Department of Defense’s National Defense Education Program (NDEP).

Photo of a satellite
Skynet’s 20-meter diameter radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

Reichart directs “Skynet,” which is a globally distributed network of fully automated or robotic telescopes, developed by his team at UNC-Chapel Hill. Skynet currently numbers approximately 20 visible-light telescopes, spanning four continents and five countries, and one significantly larger radio telescope (pictured) at Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia.

Skynet is used by hundreds of professional astronomers, who publish Skynet-collected data in peer-reviewed journals approximately every 20 days. But it has also been used by around 40,000 students of all ages.

This includes over 3,000 survey-level undergraduate students per year from over two dozen institutions across the United States and Canada, who are using a curriculum called “Our Place In Space!” or OPIS! OPIS! was originally developed by Reichart for UNC’s ASTR 101 labs. It is now being adopted on a national scale, funded by over $2 million from the National Science Foundation.

The Department of Defense (DoD) has now decided to fund a $3 million expansion of Skynet, paired with the development of a follow-on curriculum to OPIS!

Skynet will now integrate up to eight more radio telescopes into Skynet. These telescopes are located in the western mountains of North Carolina, Puerto Rico and at two sites in Australia.  They are comparable in size to Skynet’s 6-story, 150-ton radio telescope in West Virginia.  Radio telescopes look like giant satellite dishes and are used to study the invisible universe.  They are expensive to build and are located in remote, radio-quiet locations, so it is rare for students to gain access to them.

This effort will fund approximately 30 educators to develop eight new observing experiences, collectively called “Astrophotography of the Multi-Wavelength Universe!” These observing experiences will use both Skynet’s visible-light telescopes and Skynet’s new radio telescopes to explore stars and galaxies, and to study light-emitting mechanisms. This curriculum will be integrated into second-semester, but still introductory, astronomy courses at OPIS!-adopting colleges and universities across the nation.

Skynet will also be working with Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (GLAS), based in Wisconsin, to make these curricula and observing experiences accessible for deaf/hard-of-hearing and low-vision students.

“Skynet” was named after the defense-funded computer program that became self-aware and started sending evil robots back in time in the popular Terminator movies. When asked about his real-life Skynet robotics program now also being DoD-funded, Reichart joked, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

“Seriously, the plan is to use astronomy as a hook,” Reichart continued. “The end goal is to develop a more competitive workforce, with the skills, knowledge and experience that 21st-century employers like the DoD are looking for and that our nation needs to thrive in the global economy.”

Participating institutions also include Furman University, Central Michigan University, Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM, the University of Tasmania, the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute and Logos Consulting Group, LLC.

Learn more about all the recent DOD grants.

Story courtesy of department of physics and astronomy

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