Virtual telescope allows observation of the cosmos from Chile

An experience reserved for scientists is now within the reach of amateurs from all over the world on the ChileScope portal.

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By Jorge English G.

A new astronomical observatory has been under construction for the last two years atop a hill near Andacollo, a Chilean town 300 miles north of Santiago.  But there are no  foreign scientists here like the ones who use the international facilities located in the area featuring the most powerful telescopes of all times.

This telescope is not operated by specialists, but rather at a distance by internet surfers who go to the ChileScope web site. This simple concept summarizes the idea promoted by the electrical engineer Juan Carlos Hidalgo and three partners via the ChileanSky company . Better put, ChileScope offers remote astronomical observation services via the Internet.Going into more details on this original concept that is 100% Chilean in origin except for the equipment, by paying an annual subscription of just US$ 100, subscribers – called “commanders” – can enter the website and reserve time so they can connect from anywhere in the world. This allows them to control the telescope’s movements, manage exposure periods, decide – for example – whether they want images of the skies with or without filters, and edit their own photographs of the stars.

They have also created the figure of “explorer.” In other words, amateurs who pay US$ 25, which allows them to enter the site as often as they please and if there is a commander operating at that moment, then they can follow their movements and download the images that they have captured.

The sky is the limit

This idea emerged from the classrooms of an MBA offered by Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez (UAI), a program where the current partners met and presented it when they had to think of a new business project to fulfill part of their academic requirements.

Hidalgo lived in La Serena for six years and he was attracted to astronomy while in the area. This is almost inevitable, considering that from the northern desert the Milky Way shows itself in all its magnificence for at least 345 days a year. The cloudless nights and the lack of annoying light contamination from cities make the area a paradise for observing the universe.

The result is that the bright domes of observatories like Cerro Paranal, Las Campanas, Cerro Tololo, Gémeni, La Silla or the SOAR (Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research), also known as Cerro Pachón, have sprung up in the arid landscapes of the Atacama Desert, along with the ALMA project.

But Hidalgo had to content himself with making his observations by driving his car to the inner valleys so he could watch the sky with a few friends in the cold and in discomfort.

After a while, as he studied in the MBA program, he remembered those days and that he had already thought of creating a website that would allow him to be an astronomer without having to worry about the weather conditions. His vast experience with telecommunications and the Internet had taught him that telescopes can be programmed online and can take digital photographs. The ingredients were there; they just needed to be cooked.

Entrepreneurship and investment

The project finally transcended the classroom. In the last three years, the four MBA classmates formalized a partnership, undertook market research in Europe and North America to verify potential demand and twice they obtained seed capital from the Innova Fund of the state-owned Production Development Corporation (Corfo).

They also ran tests and in 2009 held a launch that was disseminated among amateurs, in particular the United States, Great Britain, China and Chile. The total investment so far has been US$ 200,000. It is likely to increase, as already 1,500 people from different parts of the world have registered.

If ChileScope generates high levels of traffic and the current equipment is not enough, then new telescopes, cameras and domes will be added. The plan is to generate 1,000 accounts per year and to grow in a sustained fashion. The main source of income will be from the sale of advertising and astronomical contents will be included to make the business a portal for astronomy, such as databases of celestial objects descriptions… “It will be a marketplace, a sales point for observation time,” Juan Carlos Hidalgo explains.

Hidalgo’s optimism is as abundant as the stars that can be observed in northern Chile. So much so, that his ChileanSky partnership is increasing its capital to incorporate another two partners, including a professional astronomer who will contribute his knowhow to sustain the expected growth.