Thinking Telescope

Thinking Telescope

On the night of February 6, 2006, Los Alamos astrophysicist Przemek Wozniak was awakened by a cell-phone call from RAPTOR, the small robotic optical telescope array on Fenton Hill, about 30 miles from Los Alamos in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. RAPTOR had found something strange—a rapidly rising light signal coming from the position of a very short gamma-ray burst detected and located. These bursts announce the birth of stellar-size black holes and are the most powerful events since the Big Bang.

Following its own logic, RAPTOR recorded the light signal every 30 seconds and noted a doubling in brightness over four minutes—an afterglow that was rising rather than fading. Running real-time analysis software, RAPTOR decided to report the anomaly to a human.

“This was a first, an autonomous optical telescope finding an anomaly on its own with no human intervention,” said Tom Verstrand. “If humans had been in the loop they would have said, as we did, ‘Gamma-ray bursts don’t act like that. Forget it.’ And RAPTOR wouldn’t have found anything.”

RAPTOR’s observation of that spectacular “rebrightening” hints that a gamma-ray burst can sometimes “turn itself on” a second time, emitting intense visible light but no gamma rays—an intriguing possibility.

For the RAPTOR team, the discovery had a broader significance. It was proof that RAPTOR has a mind of its own—truly a thinking telescope system.

The Los Alamos team is working to make RAPTOR a “discovery engine” for astronomy, scanning the entire night sky frequently, screening a hundred million visible objects and alerting us to something important. The same autonomous technology that detects eruptions at the edge of the universe can be used to detect objects orbiting the earth, and will contribute to the security of our space infrastructure.

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