The BOOTES-3 station in the South Island in New Zealand

Spain becomes the first country to have robotic telescopes in all five continents

Image credit: IAA-CSIC/NIWA

Spain's National Research Council (CSIC) has completed the first network of robotic telescopes present on the five continents, known as the BOOTES network.

The recently completed Burst Observer and Optical Transient Exploring System (BOOTES) comprises seven telescopes, located in Spain, New Zealand, China, Mexico, South Africa and Chile. 

It has been described as the most complex network of its kind, as well as a unique and automated resource that will combine data from instruments from all around the globe, and will help survey the night sky. 

“BOOTES is the result of almost 25 years of continuous effort, since we installed the first station in 1998 at INTA (Arenosillo, Huelva), the institution that initially supported the project," said Alberto J Castro-Tirado, a scientist at CSIC. 

"The complete deployment represents a scientific milestone since it is the first robotic network with a presence on all continents."

BOOTES' main objective is to quickly and autonomously observe 'transient sources', which are astrophysical objects that do not present a permanent emission over time. Instead, they emit light briefly, intensely and suddenly.

The detection of these events is usually done from satellites, and BOOTES provides an automated response in real time that allows their characterisation.

The network will also contribute to the study of gamma-ray bursts, which are the most energetic events in the universe and are associated with the death of very massive stars. Initial detection usually occurs through satellites, which inform the scientific community of the outbreak so that the event can be studied in detail.

“The culmination of the network is a success, since it has been possible with a human team and a much lower budget than similar projects," said Castro-Tirado. 

"With all the stations already operational, we can coordinate them as a single observatory that covers the entire planet, the potential of which we will show to the international community at the robotic astrophysics congress that we hold biannually and that will take place in October in Malaga."

BOOTES has already contributed to the advancement of space research. 

One of its observatories was, in 2017, the only Spanish station that observed the event known as GW170817, the first detection of a gravitational wave electromagnetic counterpart in history. The phenomenon responsible for this emission, the merger of two neutron stars, allowed the first simultaneous study of light and gravitational waves.

In 2020, BOOTES also contributed to the identification of a very short-duration radio burst-producing source in our own galaxy, which was attributed to a neutron star in several studies published in the journal Nature.

Radio telescopes have been a great asset for space scientists in recent years, with  Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) recently releasing an image that could explain how the first stars formed in the early universe, over 10 billion years ago. 

Late last year, it was announced that construction works had begun in South Africa and Australia to build the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which is set to become the largest radio telescope in the world. The gigantic observatory is set to be completed in 2028. 

The BOOTES network is managed by the IAA-CSIC, with strong involvement of the University of Malaga and in collaboration with other Spanish and international institutions.

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