Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities

April 20, 2010

The weather will be less of a factor for Ball State University student and faculty astronomers now that they have access to a powerful telescope in South America.

The university recently started using a refurbished telescope at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, joining a similar instrument at Kitt Peak in Arizona. The devices were acquired by the Southeastern Association for Research and Astronomy (SARA). Ball State has been a member of the organization since 2005.

Since high-quality telescopes are extremely rare, obtaining access is difficult for the majority of colleges and universities. Appointments at national telescope facilities must be made several months in advance, said Ron Kaitchuckphysics and astronomy professor and director of Ball State's planetarium.

Complicating research opportunities to gaze at the stars is inclement weather, which in the Midwest can often wipe out viewing for weeks at a time.

"How many things can you get done in just three or four nights?" Kaitchuck asked. "If the weather does not cooperate, astronomers sometimes have to wait months for another shot.

"With the SARA telescope in Arizona, Ball State faculty and students are guaranteed 30 nights per year," he said. "Now with a second telescope, we further increase the opportunities for our students to conduct important research projects with objects that can only be seen from the southern hemisphere."

Faculty and students observe with SARA telescopes through a secure Internet site from one of the astronomy research areas in Ball State's Cooper Science Building. Participants remotely control the telescope and download images from the digital cameras.

The telescope in Chile was formerly operated by Lowell Observatory in Arizona and was closed by Cerro Tololo in 1996. SARA was able to restore the telescope for about $250,000.

"By pooling the resources of SARA, we have dramatically improved our research opportunities," Kaitchuck said. "We will be able to go after grants simply because we will have more time to make deeper observations."