By KAREN STINNEFORD, UNC-CH News Services
CHAPEL HILL -- One small shovel of dirt, one giant leap for astronomers.
When officials in Cerro Pachon, Chile, ceremonially break ground for the new SOAR telescope Friday (April 17), a 12-year-old dream among research astronomers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will become a reality.
"We are so excited," said Dr. Wayne Christiansen, physics and astronomy professor and director of the Morehead Observatory. "It's finally going to happen."
SOAR, the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research, is a state-of-the-art, lightweight, computer-controlled, 4-meter telescope that will sit atop Cerro Pachon, a 9,000-foot mountain in Chile's northern Andes. The $28-million research facility is being funded by four partners: UNC-CH, Michigan State University, the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) and the country of Brazil. Construction should be completed by 2001.
UNC-CH representatives who shovel Chilean earth Friday at 11:30 a.m. EDT will do more than turn over a little dirt. They literally will help usher in a new era of science.
"The SOAR telescope will allow Carolina researchers and their collaborators to make significant contributions to the worldwide astronomy community well into the next century," said Chancellor Michael Hooker. "As a result, Carolina can better attract the best and brightest investigators and teachers, and greatly advance the cause of knowledge among scientists, students and the general public. "Our faculty have dreamed about SOAR for a long time, and we are deeply grateful for the assistance of Sen. Lauch Faircloth, Rep. David Price and the Cato and Goodman families in making that bold vision a reality."
UNC-CH is contributing $8 million toward the project, $6 million of which came from the U.S. Department of Defense. Faircloth, R-N.C., led efforts by the N.C. congressional delegation to inform lawmakers about the project, which led to the first of two $3-million appropriations. Price also has been a strong supporter of SOAR. The rest of UNC-CH's share is coming from private donations.
On Friday, representatives from UNC-CH, Michigan State, Brazil and NOAO will speak and erect flags from their institutions or country. UNC-CH physics and astronomy faculty attending include Dr. Thomas Clegg, department chair, and Drs. Bruce Carney, Charles Evans, Robert McMahan and Gerald Cecil. Cecil is on leave to NOAO in Tucson, Ariz., leading SOAR's scientific design team. Dr. Walter Bollenbacher from biology also will be part of the Carolina delegation.
Carney will symbolically lift to the skies the lens from UNC-CH's first telescope, purchased in England by UNC President Joseph Caldwell in 1824. Seven years later in Chapel Hill, Caldwell oversaw construction of the first astronomical observatory at a U.S. university. SOAR will collect 3,400 times more light than that original telescope, Carney said.
"We will detect objects well over a billion times fainter than the eye can see, and about 20 million times fainter than did that first telescope," Carney said. "So we can see dimmer objects and stars out to vastly greater distances, and, hence, further back in time than was possible in Caldwell's day."
UNC-CH alumni connections will place Edgar and Samantha Cato of Charlotte and Leonard Goodman of New York City at the ceremony. The Cato and Goodman families contributed early and generously to SOAR. Accompanying Goodman will be his son, Stanley; daughter-in-law, Nancy; and grandchildren Yale and Pace. Besides supporting SOAR, the Goodman family is funding a laboratory in Phillips Hall to be named for Dr. Abraham Goodman. UNC-CH is recruiting an astronomical instrument builder to work in the lab developing instruments for SOAR and other telescopes.
SOAR is not just your average telescope. Recent advances in equipment design and computer technology mean SOAR will allow astronomers to study and learn in ways they only dreamed possible, Christiansen said.
For starters, SOAR's location is ideal. Based in the foothills of the 20,000-foot Andes mountain range, SOAR sits far away from smog, lights and other visual distractions generated by city life. The flowing offshore winds and lack of annual rainfall are just right for optimal viewing, Christiansen said.
"The seeing is superb," he said. "In Chile, the center of the Milky Way galaxy passes right over your head. You can observe it for a much longer period of time, and your images aren't distorted as much by atmospheric effects."
Chile is the best site in the Southern Hemisphere for viewing the Milky Way, the galaxy containing Earth and the other planets in our solar system, and the Magellanic Clouds, the closest neighboring galaxy.
Besides offering an unfettered view of the universe, SOAR will be a technological marvel compared with today's telescopes, Christiansen said. SOAR will deliver the highest quality images possible with a large, ground-based telescope.
A major advance will be SOAR's 'quick change' instruments. Currently, 4-meter telescopes -- such as NOAO's Blanco telescope on the neighboring Chilean mountain, Cerro Tololo -- use equipment weighing tons. Depending on what type of equipment an astronomer needs to view the universe, such as infrared or visual cameras or spectographs, it can take a day or more to change settings and tools.
In 1987, Christiansen flew to Chile to spend five days on the Blanco telescope, which had been set up, per his grant request submitted months earlier, for visual observation. Just before he left town, however, a supernova blew up, making national news.
"Ironically, though, when I got to the observatory, which had the best equipment in the world to view this supernova, I couldn't even look at it," Christiansen said. "If we had pointed the telescope at the supernova, we would have fried the insides."
The rare supernova was too bright for the Blanco telescope's sensitive visual equipment. Yet, changing equipment would have taken a day -- a big part of Christiansen's allotted time on the telescope. So Christiansen stuck with his original research plan and later viewed the supernova with a small telescope, like thousands of backyard astronomers.
That scenario won't happen with SOAR. Thanks to improved design, lightweight equipment and computerized remote controls, SOAR can 'quick change,' allowing researchers to respond immediately to astronomical phenomena when they happen.
"With SOAR, the minute something like a supernova comes up, we'll be all over it," Christiansen said. "We'll be able to react to unexpected events when they happen."
Because it is so cumbersome to change equipment on telescopes like the Blanco, researchers now sign up for the telescope in several-day intervals. This isn't always the best use of time, for the researcher or the telescope. For example, Carney studies pulsating stars. The current system means he travels to Chile, collects five days worth of data and then returns to UNC-CH with reams of numbers to crunch.
"It's an enormous amount of work for Bruce," Christiansen said. "Because of his area of expertise, what he really needs are several 15-minute intervals on the telescope throughout the evening -- not five days at a time. The current system won't allow that. SOAR will."
SOAR's advanced computer system will allow UNC-CH researchers to study the skies from Chapel Hill. Because the university is guaranteed time on SOAR, researchers will create a list of projects and astronomical conditions, such as dark of the moon, needed to see them. When the right conditions happen, researchers will be notified to log onto computers in Chapel Hill to download data in real time.
"We'll get our first cut at science right away and if things aren't going as expected, you can switch filters or make other changes on the fly," Christiansen said. "Once you've finished, you can get your data over the Internet or by airmail for further analysis. For the most part, we won't need to go to Chile."
However, graduate students will be encouraged to visit the SOAR site. Not only will they gain valuable hands-on experience working with a state-of-the-art telescope, Christiansen said, but they'll have a chance to work alongside some of the world's most renowned astronomers.
"It is a great experience when graduate students can work as colleagues with visiting scientists," he said. "These informal arrangements pay huge dividends for students, and we think it is a critical learning experience for them."
SOAR will cost about $800,000 annually to operate, which NOAO has agreed to fund in exchange for time on the telescope. NOAO also will provide engineers and technicians on site to operate SOAR as directed by the project's partners. Brazil will contribute half of the $28 million construction costs; Michigan State will contribute $6 million.
For its $8 million contribution, UNC-CH astronomers will use SOAR about 60 days each year. "This is time we control, time in which we set the priorities as a group," Christiansen said.
There's an important public service component to SOAR, as well. Christiansen and his colleagues are looking at two exciting ways to involve North Carolina public-school teachers and students in the science of SOAR.
First, Tar Heel teachers and students can view some of the same astronomical objects UNC-CH researchers see -- such as pulsating stars in the Milky Way galaxy and beyond, or newly discovered comets or asteroids, Christiansen said. UNC-CH astronomers will post interesting phenomena on a computer server in Chapel Hill; these images then can be seen in classrooms via Internet, he said.
Second, science teachers and students can submit proposals for SOAR projects. UNC-CH researchers will review them and choose some; requested information will be downloaded to the school classroom, where it can be accessed by computer, Christiansen said.
"We are committed to opening the world of science to our public schools in as many ways possible," Christiansen said. "We know, as educators, that having an opportunity to learn science hands-on only fuels a student's interest and desire to learn."
Internet: SOAR's World Wide Web site -- http://www.physics.unc.edu/~cecil/SOAR.html -- contains striking photos of recent blasting and site preparation activities for the telescope in Chile.
Materials provided by University Of North Carolina At Chapel Hill. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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