THE MicroObservatory USERS' GUIDE

(Click on topic to jump to it.)

Before You Begin
Getting Started
Selecting a Telescope
Taking an Image
Suggested Camera Settings
Getting Your Image
Processing Your Image
Useful Software
Frequently Asked Questions


You are about to use a telescope that can detect objects far beyond our own galaxy... objects so distant that their light has been hurtling through space since before the first life emerged on land, nearly a billion years ago.

This telescope will do no more and no less than what you command it to do. Learn how to use it properly, and it will take you on a great adventure out in space and back in time, across our galaxy and far beyond.


Go out and look at the sky on a clear, dark night. No machine can replace your own eye... or your mind's eye. Get to know the constellations, when they rise and set, how they change with the seasons. They will be your road map as you navigate the universe.

Find good star charts. Read about the sky and learn which celestial events are headed your way. Try the challenges and puzzles that we will provide from time to time.

Above all, let your own curiosity and wonder be your guide. Get to know the mysteries of the universe that others, like you, are trying to solve.


  • ENROLLMENT. You must be enrolled in order to control the telescopes. Enrollment is free, but is currently by invitation only, as we test and develop the system. Even if you are not enrolled, you can explore all parts of MicroObservatory, including the latest images that users have taken, along with challenges and puzzles.

  • WEB BROWSER. If you are not already using one of the following web browsers, you will need Netscape, version 2.0 or newer, or MicroSoft Explorer 3.0 or newer, or a similar Web Browser that supports "frames" (multiple windows).

    Your browser's window should be opened to its full width.

    To get more viewing area, some browsers allow you to hide or shrink the control buttons at the top. (In Netscape, the Options menu allows you to hide the Toolbar, Location, and Directory Buttons, freeing more screen area.)

  • HARDWARE. You'll need a 28.8kbaud modem or faster to comfortably download images from the telescope.

  • SOFTWARE. You don't need special software to view images from the telescopes. (Images are returned in the GIF format, which is read by all Internet browsers.) HOWEVER, in order to get the most out of your images, it helps to have IMAGE PROCESSING software that lets you adjust the brightness, contrast, or background noise in your images. The telescopes can also return images in the FITS format, which contains more information, than GIF format. To view or process images in FITS format, you will need special software. See Section X for obtaining this software.


  • SELECTING A TELESCOPE LOCATION. To select one of the MicroObservatory telescopes, first go to the Telescope CONTROL CENTER. The map shows the location of MicroObservatory telescopes across the United States.

  • CHECKING THE WEATHER. You MUST check the weather at a telescope's location, using the buttons provided, before you use the telescope. The telescopes should only be used under clear skies.

  • ACCESSING THE TELESCOPES. Once you have determined that skies are clear at the desired location, simply click on the map at the location you want. The control panel for that telescope will appear on your screen.


    WHEN TO TAKE IMAGE. You'll need to know WHEN the object you want is above the horizon and HIGH ENOUGH for you to take a clear image. (Usually, the higher in the sky it is, the clearer the image, because the telescope has to look through less atmosphere.) You can use astronomy magazines, other Web sites, or the information in this site to help you figure out "what's up when."

  • "NOW." During the daytime (6 AM to 6 PM at the telescope's location), you can use the telescope "live". Just select the "Now" button and proceed. This is ideal for observing the Moon from your classroom, when it is up during the daytime. Some planets are also observable during the day! Sorry, the telescope cannot take images of the Sun.

  • AT NIGHT. To take an image at night, you must set the telescope controls in advance; the telescope will automatically take the image at the time you specify (between 6 PM and 6 AM at the telescope's location). Don't forget to enter AM or PM and then the hour and minute desired. If the time slot is filled, the telescope will take the image as soon as possible after the desired time. (You can check the Information returned with your image to see exactly when the image was taken.)

    POINT TELESCOPE. You can point the telescope in two different ways. Be sure to select the appropriate button.

  • USING COORDINATES. You can enter the COORDINATES of the desired object. These coordinates, called "Right Ascension" (RA) and "Declination" (Dec) are like a Zip Code that tells the location of an object on the sky. You'll want to use these coordinates for distant objects such as stars and galaxies. You can find an object's coordinates from star charts and catalogs available in books, magazines, on the Web, or elsewhere on this site. (The telescope's computer automatically takes into account the rotation of the Earth when it points the telescope.)

  • USING LIST. Use the convenient list for viewing the Moon and planets. Objects that are inside our Solar System (such as the Moon, planets, and asteroids) appear to move against the "fixed" background of distant stars, and their coordinates change with time. The MicroObservatory computer will automatically calculate the position of the object at the desired time and point the telescope for you. The list also contains other popular objects for viewing. Note: The Information returned with your image lists the actual coordinates (RA and Dec) used.

    SELECT CAMERA. Use the buttons to select the MAIN or FINDER camera:

  • The MAIN CAMERA is used for most work. Its 1-degree field of view comfortably includes the Moon, planets with their moons, and all galaxies and nebulae except the Andromeda galaxy, M31.

  • The FINDER CAMERA has a 10-degree field of view (about half the size of the constellation Orion). Use the FINDER for observing constellations, comet tails, and other objects that spread across the sky.


  • SETTING FINDER CAMERA. For most objects except for the Moon, use an exposure of about 60 seconds (up to a maximum of 300 seconds). Use the clear filter. For very bright objects like the Moon (which will appear the size of a nickel in the FINDER), use the Neutral Density Filter to cut down on the light, and use an exposure of 1 second.

  • SETTING THE MAIN CAMERA. Here are some recommended settings for various celestial objects. (You may have to experiment.) A great way to learn is to look at images that other users have taken... and then check the Information box returned with each image to see the settings that were used.

    The Moon...
    Camera: Main
    Filter: Grey (Neutral Density)
    Exposure: 1 to 3 seconds

    Camera: Main
    Filter: Clear (or for special work, Red or IR which help cut down background light)
    Exposure: 15 to 45 seconds
    Point Telescope: If target not on pull-down list, use coordinates and input RA and Dec.

    Camera: Main
    Filter: Clear
    Exposure: 0.1 - 0.5 seconds for Venus, 0.5 - 1 second for Jupiter and its moons, longer for others.
    Point Telescope: Use the pull-down list.

    Nebulae... Camera: Main
    Filter: For emission nebulae, red or IR
    Exposure: 15 to 45 seconds
    Point Telescope: If not on pull-down list, input RA and DEC

    The Sun...
    By appointment only for now.

    Terrestrial Objects (daytime)...
    Not available yet.

  • FOCUS. Always use the DEFAULT FOCUS. This automatically takes into account the thickness of any filters you may be using, and selects the best focus value. For certain special applications, it may be desired to defocus the image. This can be done with MANUAL FOCUS. Check with support staff first.

  • AUTHORIZATION. To send commands to the telescope, you must enter your:

  • USERNAME. You must use the username you chose when you enrolled. (A first initial and last name is recommended.) You can change your username by re-enrolling.

  • PASSWORD. You must use the personal password you chose when you enrolled. You can change your password by re-enrolling.

  • TAKE PICTURE. It's a good idea to check your control panel to see you've entered your settings correctly. When you're ready to send the commands to the telescope, just hit TAKE PICTURE. (Sorry, there's no way to cancel a command once you've hit this button!)


  • HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE? The telescope will take the image at the time you requested or as soon thereafter as the traffic permits. It takes from one to several minutes to take an image. This includes the time to point the telescope, take the exposure, and download the image over the Internet to the MicroObservatory server in Cambridge, MA.

  • WHEN WILL I KNOW? The telescope will automatically send you an e-mail when your image has been taken. If your mail-server alerts you to incoming mail only at long intervals, you may find it faster to simply check the QUEUE for the telescope on the SELECT TELESCOPE page in the CONTROL CENTER. The QUEUE lists all images still waiting to be taken.

  • RETRIEVE IMAGE. When your image has been taken, it will be listed in the MicroObservatory IMAGE DIRECTORY. You can access this DIRECTORY from many parts of the Web site by clicking the button GET IMAGES.

  • FINDING YOUR IMAGE. Images are listed in the order they were taken, with the most recent image at the top. If you prefer, you can RE-SORT this directory to list images alphabetically by USERNAME. Just click on the column heading, USERNAME. That way, all your images will be grouped together.

  • VIEWING AN IMAGE. Just click on the filename and the image will appear on screen, in GIF format. If you are viewing a SERIES OF IMAGES, you may wish to view just a THUMBNAIL image for each. (This saves on the download time.) Simply click on INFO, to the right of the Filename for your image. You can keep scanning through your thumbnail images, using the arrows at top.

  • VIEWING IMAGES IN FITS FORMAT. The telescope takes images in FITS format, which contains more visual information that the GIF format used on the Web. The computer then converts the image to GIF format, and saves the image in both the GIF and FITS formats. The original FITS image is useful for advanced image processing, for measuring the brightness of objects, and for viewing fine detail. To retrieve a FITS image, first examine the GIF image by clicking on the Filename. Then Click on the "Save FITS image" link at the top of the image. The browser will save the FITS image. You will need special software to view or process this image. See SOFTWARE, below.

  • INFORMATION ABOUT YOUR IMAGE. The telescope records a great deal of useful information about how each image was taken. To view this information, click on INFO, to the right of the Filename for your image.

    Internet Explorer
    Hold mouse button down.
    Select "Download Link to Disk"
    Hold mouse button down.
    Select "Save this Link as..."
    Make sure to choose Source as the Format
    when saving the file.

    PC (Windows)
    Internet Explorer
    Hold right mouse button down.
    Select "Save Target As..."
    You can NOT save FITS files with Netscape
    on the PC.

    Hold right mouse button down.
    Select "Save Link As..."

  • DELETING AN IMAGE. Images will be saved in the IMAGE DIRECTORY for one week and then deleted.


    There is a lot more information in a typical image than meets the eye at first. To bring out the fine details, you must PROCESS YOUR IMAGE. Below are recommended software programs, downloadable from the Web or commercially. Following is a brief description of the kinds of processing that may be useful in your experiments. For details, consults the manuals of specific software programs.

    ADJUSTING CONTRAST AND BRIGHTNESS. This is the simplest processing you can do. It is very useful for faint and low-contrast objects like galaxies or nebula.

    BACKGROUND SPECKS. Some (or many) of the little white dots in your image are NOT stars: If they are a single pixel ("picture element") wide, they are likely to be background noise, called "hot pixels". This noise comes from the light-sensing electronic chip itself and is caused by heat, cosmic rays and other factors. You can eliminate this in programs like Adobe Photoshop that allow you to remove "dust" from photographs.

    BACKGROUND NOISE. If you use the opaque filter and try to take a picture, you will NOT get a completely black image. That's because the telescope's light-sensing chip itself produces electronic "noise" that is interpreted as faint light. By SUBTRACTING OUT this noise from your image, you can bring out faint details. To do this, you need to use an image-processing program that allows you to subtract one image from another, that is, to subtract the "dark field" image taken with an opaque filter from the image you want to enhance. (Both images must have been taken with the same exposure time.)



    For the Macintosh:

    Graphic Converter is an easy-to-use shareware program that opens and lets you convert a wide variety of image formats, including FITS, GIF, PICT, TIFF, and many others. It allows you to change the brightness, contrast, and other features of your image. It does NOT allow you to subtract one image from another (important if you want to accurately measure the brightness of celestial objects or to subtract background noise.)

    MAIA.2.2.11 is a very powerful image-processing shareware program designed for astronomy that supports both powerMacs and 680x0 processors with or without a floating point unit. It is designed for use with FITS images. (Be sure to download your MicroObservatory image from the telescope in the FITS format when working with this program. This format contains the most visual information.) Once you have processed your FITS image, you can use Graphic Converter (see above), to convert it to a more convenient format for use in reports, etc.

    NIH Image requires 2MB of free RAM and System 7.0 or later. This very popular program works with TIFF, PICT, PICS, and MacPaint files. (The latest version may recognize FITS and GIF files. Check the NIH site.) This is a more complicated program than Graphic Converter, but has many more features.

    ImageJ for the Mac Requires a Power Mac, OS 7.6.1 or later. From the creator of NIH Image, opens FITS files.

    For the PC, using Windows 95 or Windows NT:

    ImageJ for Windows From the creator of NIH Image, opens FITS files.


    Visit the University of California at Santa Barbara Astrophysics site, or try the Astronomy Exchange Software on the Net.

    Making your own Web page? You can make animated images or images with transparent backgrounds using GifBuilder.


    This software enables two or more users to chat online. For the Macintosh, try GlobalChat. For the PC (for Windows 3.x, 95, or NT), try mIRC.


    Please help us keep this guide up-to-date and accurate. Send us your comments, suggestions, or questions.