April 15, 2010
10-072

Jennifer Tanner
Communications Specialist

Astronomy Group Secures Telescope Access in Chile

VALDOSTA -- Astronomy professors from Valdosta State University have an improved view of the Southern Hemisphere's night skies via a .6-m telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, which was recently refurbished and automated by the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy consortium (SARA).

The telescope -- formerly operated by Lowell Observatory in Arizona -- was closed by Cerro Tololo in 1996. SARA invested about $250,000 in upgrades to make the telescope remotely accessible over the Internet. SARA's investment improves scholarship capabilities for professors and also generates richer experiences for students who aid professors in research.

"VSU astronomers now have access to two research-level telescopes in locations that have minimal light pollution and are at higher altitude, in addition to an on-campus 16-inch telescope," said Dr. Kenneth Rumstay, VSU professor of astronomy. "Students majoring in astronomy at VSU have a chance to operate these telescopes with faculty members and gain priceless experience in astronomical observations."

Established in 1992 by the Florida Institute of Technology, East Tennessee State University, the University of Georgia (which left the group in 2006) and Valdosta State University, SARA now includes astronomers from Florida International University, Clemson University, Ball State University, Agnes Scott College, University of Alabama, Valparaiso University and Butler University. The ten institutions work together to overcome the typical challenges of being an astronomer at a small department.

A lot of patience, preparation and luck are required for an astronomer to have just one a successful night of observation. Access to the worlds’ most powerful telescopes is scarce -- especially for researchers at smaller schools, who face greater obstacles in trying to secure research grants and longer waits for equipment use. Once time is secured (typically six or more months in advance), astronomers are at the mercy of the weather when their rare opportunity to use the telescope finally arrives.

With the help of the Chilean telescope and a telescope the group already operates at Kitt Peak in Arizona, each institution in the group can now view the night skies from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres (occasionally simultaneously) for about 30 days out of the year.

"To complete surveys of asteroids or to monitor active galaxies requires more than 3-4 nights a year," said Dr. Martha Leake, VSU's SARA representative. "Monthly access to both SARA-South and SARA-North allows significant progress in that research."

Alone, none of SARA’s members would have been able to acquire and refurbish the telescopes in Chile or Arizona. But together, “the 30 astronomy researchers and 10 institutions that make up SARA form a virtual astronomy department that is as large as many major astronomy departments in the U.S.,” said Terry Oswalt, SARA Chairman and Florida Institute of Technology professor.

SARA’s success stems from not only being able to pool their resources, but also to acquire excellent facilities for a very low cost. All the extra nights of viewing and the addition of a telescope in the Southern Hemisphere create a host of new opportunities to pursue longer-term and more risky projects for roughly the cost of a few nights of viewing on a very powerful telescope.

The group’s flexibility is even further improved by their ability to remotely access their telescopes from their labs on assigned nights with the flexibility to change schedules to accommodate unexpected opportunities.

"Since 1995 I have been using the SARA telescope at Kitt Peak to monitor changes in the brightness of the central cores of distant galaxies, believed to harbor black holes weighing as much as a billion suns," Rumstay said. “By studying their changes we hope to learn something about the environments in which they reside. I couldn't do this kind of work if I could only use a research-grade telescope once or twice a year. Membership in SARA allows me to observe these galaxies on a monthly basis, from the comfort of home."

The two SARA telescopes are separated by thousands of miles, which gives researchers the ability to measure distances and orbits in the same way having two eyes provides depth perception. Leake said this new option will provide for deeper observations within her studies of the rotation rates of primitive asteroids.

"Summer observations of asteroids from the northern hemisphere are difficult because the asteroids are low in the sky and not up for very long," she explained. "Now I can access our southern telescope, watch the same asteroids for a longer time, and see them higher in the sky. It's winter in Chile--nice long nights!"

Call VSU's Department of Physics, Astronomy and Geosciences at 229-333-5752 for more information about the university's research endeavors. Find out more about SARA at http://www.astro.fit.edu/sara/sara.html .