We tend to think of astronomy as involving the study of objects that change only slowly over time, but Professor Katherine Blundell studies phenomena such as Galactic black hole systems that are far from static. Over days or even hours they can undergo huge changes, for example ejecting massive jets of matter or tearing apart neighbouring stars. Investigating changes like these as they happen can help astrophysicists to understand more about how these highly dynamic systems work.
Watching rapidly evolving objects from Earth, however, poses a problem. An optical observatory can only make observations during the hours of darkness, and so may miss vital changes that happen during the day. To get around this problem, Professor Blundell secured funding from a wide range of charities and individuals to establish the Global Jet Watch project and build a network of five observatories in strategic locations across the world: one on each side of Australia, one in South Africa, one in Chile and one in India. As night-time comes to an end in one observatory, observations switch to the next one, so that Professor Blundell and her team have a continuous picture of what is happening to the Galactic objects they are observing.
This project is unique, and its spin-offs are unique too. One of Professor Blundell’s goals in establishing the observatories was to benefit local schoolchildren, particularly girls, in the developing world. As a result four of the five observatories have been located in residential schools; after darkness but before local bedtime, the schools are free to use the telescopes with their students to promote an interest in astronomy in particular and in science and engineering in general. After the students go to bed, the telescopes are operated by remote control from the Department of Physics to gather the round-the-clock data needed to achieve the astrophysics goals of the Global Jet Watch project.
Another highly creative development has taken place at the Indian observatory, based at a school in a rural area in the south of the country. Many of its students are from poor communities and would not otherwise have had any opportunity to study science of this kind. Their enthusiasm for the observatory is enormous. But the Global Jet Watch project initially encountered a problem which seriously affected the running of the observatory here: the local electricity supply is extremely unreliable. It can go down altogether for many hours at a time, and at other times the supply is so spiky that it has wrecked sensitive equipment.
The solution was to get off the local grid altogether and power the observatory using solar energy. The equipment for this ambitious and innovative project was funded by an anonymous donor. In January 2017 the observatory was connected to a ‘solar farm’ on the roof of the school, and is now powered, rather appropriately, by light from our nearest star. Electricity generated by the solar panels is used to charge banks of batteries which enable the observatory equipment to run safely at night with no interruptions. The school is impressed with the fact that electricity can be extracted from the sky, and the hope is that the solar facility will also make a difference to what the school can do for itself.
So as well as lessons in astrophysics, the Global Jet Watch project has contributed a lesson in the benefits of renewable energy, and an initiative that is generating exciting astrophysics data is also inspiring a new generation of scientists across the world..
The award of a GCRF grant enabled the construction of the solar website so that the school and others in the locality can see clearly the sound science and engineering principles on which the solar farm provides its energy. It also funded monitoring equipment to enable the battery specialists in Oxford’s Department of Engineering to scrutinise the performance of the energy storage and supply under ambient conditions very different from those in Oxford! It is hoped that this will benefit similar, future installations in that part of the world.