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11:34 PM Fri, Nov. 16th

'Community Observatory' lets everyone contribute to astronomy

Courtesy photo

Courtesy photo

PRESCOTT - Imagine getting to borrow an observatory-sized telescope to take photos of Comet Lovejoy as it comes closest to Earth this week.

With a membership in the Slooh Community Observatory, you can request robotic control of Slooh's three telescopes in the Canary Islands and Chile. And you don't have to have any astronomical expertise, since Slooh will tell you the best time and set up the shoot. It takes color images and uploads them to your computer.

"You just have to know what you want to look at," explained Matt Francis, a Slooh partner who helps Slooh conduct free live broadcasts from his Prescott Observatory. "You don't need a giant observatory and all the equipment I have to do this."

Francis will be talking about Slooh and his astronomical interests at the free Third Thursday Star Talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Prescott Public Library.

He'll discuss his webcasting and techniques he uses to provide live images and video feed to Slooh as one of its primary partners.

Many Slooh members use their own telescopes, video camera and Internet connection to participate even more actively in the Slooh research community.

"It's a real sense of accomplishment," Francis said.

Slooh members have taken more than 2.5 million photos of more than 40,000 celestial objects, participated in numerous discoveries with leading astronomical institutions, and made more than 2,000 submissions to the Minor Planet Center since Slooh began in 2003, according to its website.

And it broadcasts free live celestial events from Prescott and other partner observatories showing potentially hazardous asteroids, comets, transits, eclipses and solar activity. Francis has been involved in broadcasts about the sun and other objects in the sky.

One of Slooh's newest partnerships is with NASA. Their goal is to recruit citizen scientists to track and characterize near-Earth asteroids using Slooh's network of observatories.

When Francis first envisioned making his observatory accessible to the public, he was concerned about limitations because only about 10 people can fit into it.

But now with Slooh, he said he can reach 600,000 to one million people.

Francis bought the observatory from Paul Comba in 2012 and added his own equipment. He loves the low humidity and clear skies of Arizona.

While Comba spent much of his time conducting wide field surveys in search of asteroids, Francis enjoys taking photos of other galaxies that are much farther away in a smaller part of the sky.

Right now he's also collecting data for scientists at Flagstaff's Lowell Observatory who are studying primordial dwarf galaxy evolution.

In the future, he envisions making his observatory available to local grad students.

Francis' education and professional career is in nano-technology, specifically laser scanning and electron beam microscopy.

He installs electron microscopes, which are popular for cancer research right now.

He owns a scanning electron microscope that can magnify objects up to 100,000 times, so he also examines objects for others. For example, he's analyzing meteorites for a local teacher.

His chief personal interest is exploring how consciousness and physical laws interact to define reality.

He's gathering the necessary equipment to try to conduct an experiment to see if other animals can change the way a quantum particle behaves by observing it, as research has shown humans can do.

The Copenhagen Interpretation shows that a particle exists as a probability until we observe it, and then it behaves the way we expect, Francis explained.

Follow Joanna Dodder on Twitter @joannadodder