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The Night Sky: Live Daily on a Computer Near You
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Email:Marcia Goodrich

Nov. 9, 2004--If you lie on your back in one of the world's best stargazing spots and you have better than perfect vision, you might see the firmament as portrayed on Robert Nemiroff's Night Sky Live webpage.

The webpage, at, is part of the CONCAM (for "CONtinuous CAMera") sky monitoring project, which was started in in 1999 by physics professor Nemiroff and former graduate dean Bruce Rafert. "We wanted to record the night sky for posterity," Nemiroff says.

The page displays photos taken by cameras with fisheye lenses at some of the world's major observatories. The images are then sent via computer and posted on the website, creating a continuous record of the night sky.

CONCAMs, which fit in briefcase-size plastic cases, may be the world's smallest astronomical observatories. Unlike big, high-powered telescopes, they show the entire sky from sites scattered all over the world, so the CONCAM network is much more likely to capture unusual cosmic events than a large telescope narrowly focused on, say, a distant galaxy that's invisible to the naked eye.

Nemiroff and Rafert deployed their first CONCAM in April 2000, and the project has grown bigger and more sophisticated ever since. Currently, they have 10 CONCAMs at major observatories in Hawaii, California, Arizona, Florida, Chile, the Canary Islands, South Africa, Israel and Australia.

Night Sky Live isn't just for astronomers. It brings telescopic images to anyone with curiosity and access to a networked computer. "If you are in Australia and you can't see the lunar eclipse happening on the other side of the world, you can see it on Night Sky Live," Nemiroff says. Then, if you want, you can ask questions and post comments on the Night Sky Live bulletin board.

Scientific American honored Night Sky Live with a 2004 Science & Technology Web Award (see ). The page also got a mention in the Oct. 15 edition of Science in its NetWatch section.

Night Sky Live has received funding from the National Science Foundation, NASA and Michigan Tech, and is maintained with the help of several undergraduates and two graduate students, Tilvi Vithal and Lior Shamir.

With Night Sky Live and his other web endeavor, Astronomy Picture of the Day (see, Nemiroff has accidentally found himself managing two great sites for anyone with an interest in the cosmos.

"The Night Sky Live project was not originally intended to be an outreach tool," he says. "Its primary purpose remains scientific discovery, although we feel it does have significant outreach potential."

When they created the Astronomy Picture of the Day site in 1995, Nemiroff and his co-author, Jerry Bonnell of the Universities Space Research Association, aimed to stem what Nemiroff calls "the rising tide of unannotated and bizarrely misunderstood astronomy images from flooding the web."

Bad astronomy is still alive and well on the web, but the Astronomy Picture of the Day has been good for other things, including providing source material for Nemiroff's 2003 coffee table book, "The Universe: 365 Days." And thousands of Internet users find plenty of good science every day at Night Sky Live and APOD.

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