SOAR Telescope to Make Star Voyagers of Faculty, Students

In 1986, with UNC’s approaching Bicentennial in 1993, research astronomers were thinking bold thoughts about the future.

UNC’s first president, Joseph Caldwell, had purchased the University’s first telescope in 1824. Seven years later, he oversaw construction of the first astronomical observatory at an American university in Chapel Hill. Then in the 1940s, John Motley Morehead III (class of 1891) had gone on to give his alma mater the first planetarium ever built on a college campus.

Nearly 50 years later, UNC’s research astronomers wanted to add to the legacy – build a telescope with superb optics coupled with computerized remote controls and “quick change” instruments that would allow them to capture some of the universe’s most dazzling phenomena with only a few minutes’ advance notice, performance goals that more traditional single-instrument telescopes could not reach.

The dream that began in 1986 was realized officially on April 17, when a Carolina delegation joined other officials on Cerro Pachon, Chile, for a ceremony dedicating the Southern Astrophysical Research, or SOAR, telescope.

The SOAR telescope is a 4.1-meter aperture telescope designed to produce the best quality images of any observatory in its class worldwide, officials said.

UNC held its own ceremony April 16 to spotlight the SOAR telescope.

Funded by a $32 million public-private partnership among the U.S. National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), the Ministry of Science of Brazil, Michigan State University and UNC, SOAR is expected to begin routine science operations in late 2004.

Bruce Carney, Samuel Baron professor and chairman of physics and astronomy, and Wayne Christiansen, professor and director of the Morehead Observatory, played critical roles in forging UNC’s successful partnerships for the project.

Carney, Christiansen, UNC Provost Robert Shelton and Robert McMahan, research professor of astronomy at UNC and senior adviser to Gov. Mike Easley ’72 for science and technology, participated in the ceremony in Chapel Hill via the Internet and also attended the ceremony in Chile.

SOAR is situated on Cerro Pachon, Chile, at an altitude of 8,775 feet above sea level, at the western edge of the Chilean Andes’ jagged peaks. Chile is one of the best sites in the Southern Hemisphere for viewing the Milky Way, the galaxy containing Earth and other planets in the solar system, and the Magellanic Clouds, the closest neighboring galaxies.

“SOAR from the very start has been envisioned as a telescope optimized to give the clearest images,” said Christiansen.

A major advance will be SOAR’s “quick change” instruments. Most 4-meter telescopes in scientific use have equipment weighing tons. Depending on what type of equipment an astronomer needs to view the universe, such as infrared or visual cameras or spectrographs, it can take a day to change settings and tools. SOAR can switch instruments in a matter of seconds, Carney and Christiansen said.

Such rapid response to new scientific targets of opportunity, including explosive gamma-ray bursts, supernovae and other transient objects, allows research astronomers to be alerted within seconds and observe and collect data on phenomena within minutes.

Speed and clarity are key components to SOAR. The telescope’s major UNC-built instrument, the Abraham Goodman Spectrograph, will separate light in a way that allows research astronomers to learn the qualities of celestial objects with state-of-the-art accuracy. The instrument is named for the father of Leonard Goodman ’48, whose family contributed to SOAR. In addition, the Abraham Goodman Laboratory for Astronomical Instrumentation on the UNC campus will develop new technology and new instrumentation for SOAR.

Also located at UNC is the Henry Cox Remote Observing Center within the Morehead Observatory, where faculty and students may regularly observe with SOAR and other telescopes without leaving campus. SOAR’s networking capabilities and computer control systems will allow UNC researchers to tailor their observing for ideal conditions.

The astronomers will then be notified to log onto computers in Chapel Hill that control their instruments and, finally, download the data and images obtained in real time.

UNC has raised $7.8 million in federal appropriations and secured an additional $11.7 million in grants and private gifts. About $8.2 million of this total has been spent on the construction, and a significant portion of the remaining funds is being spent to build the Goodman Spectrograph.

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