Topic: College of Sciences and Humanities
November 17, 2015
Robert Berrington, a Ball State physics and astronomy professor, attended the Oct. 11 dedication ceremony for the La Palma telescope along with other members of SARA, a group of 13 institutions that operates three telescopes across the globe.
Ball State University faculty and students can watch the skies in northern Africa without leaving Muncie now that they have remote access to a telescope in the Canary Islands.
Ball State astronomers have the ability to use the telescope due to the university’s membership in the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA), a group of 13 institutions that operates three telescopes across the globe, and recently took over operations of the telescope in La Palma.
Constructed in the 1980s, the observatory was built to take advantage of the excellent atmospheric conditions on a high-altitude volcanic island. Ball State has been a member of the SARA Consortium since 2005.
The telescope offers advantages for both research and teaching, said Robert Berrington, a Ball State physics and astronomy professor.
“The telescope is considerably east of Muncie, and night time occurs five hours earlier,” he said. “This means for afternoon classes here, it is nighttime on La Palma, and actual nighttime observations can occur during the scheduled classroom time.”
More time to study a star’s brightness
Berrington said the research advantages of the new telescope also benefit the students who examine time series analysis of the brightness of celestial object, or how the brightness of a star changes with time.
“Traditionally, the longest duration you can continuously observe an object was limited by the length of a night. Now with the advent of remote observing — controlling the telescope from afar — and the ability to coordinate the new telescope with the telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, or KPNO, in Arizona, we can observe a star continuously for longer than the length of a night.”
“We can start our observations of an object on La Palma, and transition those observations from La Palma to KPNO when it becomes night time in Arizona about seven hours later. This allows us to extend the time frame of continuous monitoring by from the traditional limit of about 12 hours to 19 hours. This permits a more complete temporal coverage of these objects and a greater understanding of these objects.”
Berrington attended the telescope’s dedication ceremonies on Oct. 11. He represented Ball State when the equipment was acquired by the 13-member SARA. The facility was decommissioned in 2003 and transferred to the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias (IAC) in 2012. SARA and the IAC reached an operating agreement for the telescope last year.
Research from asteroids to quasars
In addition to telescopes in Arizona and the Canary Islands, Ball State also has access to a facility in Chile. SARA astronomers have been using these facilities to pursue research ranging from asteroids to quasars, and they are also used by students in the classroom and for public outreach events.
Through its membership in SARA, Ball State has 55 nights annually that students and faculty can use for instruction and research.
“Prior to this, observing 55 nights a year, with travel to an isolated location, would have been difficult,” Berringotn said. “These telescopes give today’s students unprecedented access to professional quality sites with minimal interruption to their instruction.”