Fast and curious

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Science  05 May 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6337, pp. 476-479
DOI: 10.1126/science.356.6337.476

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Robotic telescopes have been part of astronomers’ toolkit for decades, but the builders of Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) have put together something unique: a coordinated network of 18 telescopes at six sites giving 24/7 access to almost the entire sky. Its telescopes are all built or adapted by in-house staff and have identical instruments that give astronomers the same view of the heavens whenever and wherever they observe. And using it is more like signing up to an astronomical Netflix than using a telescope. Anyone can log onto the LCO website, create an account, buy some observing time, and request an observation. If the stars are aligned correctly, they could have results in as little as 15 minutes. That makes LCO ideal for “time domain astronomy,” the study of phenomena that change rapidly and have to be caught on the fly. LCO’s speed and flexibility have caught the attention of astronomers and their funders.