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October 28, 1996

Research Update: Astronomy

Computers have taken total control of a 30-inch telescope at UCSC's Lick Observatory, making it the most sensitive fully robotic telescope anywhere.

The Katzman Automatic Imaging Telescope (KAIT), built by astronomers at UC Berkeley, was dedicated Friday, October 25, by UCSC officials. Chancellor M.R.C. Greenwood led the dedication.

The instrument is named for the Sylvia and Jim Katzman Foundation of Saratoga, which donated $50,000 at a critical time in the telescope's development, said Alex Filippenko, professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and leader of the seven-year effort to build the instrument.

KAIT will devote itself full-time to checking the night sky for flaring supernovas, to following the changing brightnesses of variable stars, or to observing any object that changes over short or long periods of time. And since it is totally under computer control it can easily be redirected to new targets at an astronomical whim.

The astronomers even hope to give students ready access to the instrument to conduct nightly studies of changing celestial objects, from orbiting moons to comets and asteroids.

"With this telescope, the University of California and Lick Observatory jump to the forefront of research and science education using robotic telescopes," Filippenko said.

"This project fit hand-in-glove with my longtime interests in astronomy and computer engineering," said Jim Katzman, cofounder of Tandem Computers and a member of the Dean's Advisory Council for UCSC's Natural Sciences Division. "Sylvia and I thought this was a unique and exciting project, because it will allow astronomers to do serious science remotely and to schedule observations that aren't possible with normal telescopes."

KAIT can track a given area of the sky for hours, better than any other robotic telescope now in operation. During a half-hour observation it can detect objects 10,000 times fainter than other such telescopes, or a million times fainter than the human eye can see unaided.

--Robert Sanders and Robert Irion