In 1986, scientists from the University of Texas Astronomy Department established a world-wide network of cooperating astronomical observatories to obtain uninterrupted time-series measurements of variable stars. The technological goal was to resolve the multi-periodic oscillations observed in these objects into their individual components; the scientific goal was to construct accurate theoretical models of the target objects, constrained by their observed behavior, from which their fundamental astrophysical parameters could be derived. This approach has been extremely successful, and has placed the fledgling science of stellar seismology at the forefront of stellar astrophysics.
This network, now known as the Whole Earth Telescope (WET) is run as a single astronomical instrument with many operators. The collaboration includes scientists from around the globe in data acquisition, reduction, analysis, and theoretical interpretation. For the first decade of its existence, the WET was headquartered at the University of Texas in Austin (which also currently supports a separate WET website). When WET founder Dr. Edward Nather retired as director in 1997, WET HQ moved to Iowa State University, home of the current WET director, Dr. Steven Kawaler.
During a WET observation, operation is coordinated from a single command center by electronic mail and long-distance telephone. Data returned by e-mail from the various sites are reduced, combined, and subjected to preliminary analysis in real time, to maximize the effective use of the whole instrument. Following the run, the principal scientist reduces all the data and drafts a preliminary manuscript, which is circulated through the collaborators for that particular project. When all of them approve, the final results are submitted for publication.
The collaboration has chiefly been one of remote contact: despite excellent networking facilities for most sites, communication remains a frequent difficulty. To help alleviate this problem, WET participants have organized short (week-long) workshops about once every two years to discuss previous campaigns and plan future observations.
In 1995, the WET became an affiliated program of the International Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physics (IITAP) at Iowa State University. The goal of IITAP was to foster collaborations between U.S. scientists and their colleagues in developing countries, and thus cooperation between IITAP and WET was a natural venture.
A major operational goal of the WET collaboration has been to share the technical and scientific expertise and results from the WET project with all interested astronomers and technicians. To do so requires bringing them to the US to learn directly from the project originators. They would then return to their home countries with new tools, software, knowledge, and most importantly, enthusiasm. By building on these fundamental resources they can participate in future WET campaigns, and observing programs of their own, at a level comparable to nations in current leadership positions.
Currently, WET is operated with headquarters at Iowa State University. The collaboration is co-directed by Steve Kawaler at Iowa State, and Darragh O'Donoghue at the South African Astronomical Observatory, with guidance provided by a panel of senior WET members, known as the Council of the Wise (CoW). Funding for the WET comes, in part, from the U.S. National Science Foundation and Iowa State University.