Yale's One-Meter Telescope in Chile Gets New Lease on Life Through a Consortium with Ohio State, Lisbon University, NOAO

Yale University’s telescope high in the Andes Mountains of Chile received a new lease on life recently when Yale agreed to form a consortium with Ohio State University, the University of Lisbon in Portugal, and the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO). The consortium will provide upgrades and operational expenses that will enable the telescope, which has a mirror one meter in diameter, to play a significant research role well into the 21st century.

The telescope, located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile, has been operated since 1973 by NOAO and has been used by Yale in recent years mostly for teaching graduate students. Its future was threatened recently when NOAO announced it would withdraw support because of budget cuts. Under the new agreement, the refurbished telescope is expected to reopen in March 1998, said Charles Bailyn, Yale astronomy professor and the consortium’s Project Scientist.

According to a letter of intent signed by the collaborators in August, Ohio State will build a sophisticated new detector system, Portugal will provide most of the operational costs, and Yale and NOAO will work together to refurbish the telescope. In return, each of the universities will be allocated 30 percent of the viewing time, and NOAO will get the remaining 10 percent to share with the general astronomical community. Previously, Yale received 33 percent of viewing time while NOAO allocated the remainder to other astronomy groups.

Ohio State’s new detector system will be able to detect both optical light and infrared radiation, thus greatly increasing the telescope’s versatility, Professor Bailyn said. Yale and NOAO will install a new computer control system and new focus mechanisms, and will provide better air flow through the telescope and dome in order to improve image quality.

“Preliminary tests conducted in March suggest that the telescope is already providing excellent images, and should do better still when all the improvements are in place,” Professor Bailyn said. “We intend to operate the telescope in a novel way, using on-site Chilean observers acting under e-mail instructions sent nightly by any or all of the consortium institutions. Our experience in remote observing from the Yale campus, which is linked electronically with Yale’s WIYN telescope in Arizona, should be helpful in this new mode of operations.”

The flexible “queue observing” planned with the telescope in Chile will allow astronomers to monitor long-term variations in brightness of astronomical objects in a way not possible under traditional block scheduling, in which astronomers are assigned a few specific nights over the course of a year, Professor Bailyn said.

In addition to the Chile telescope, Yale operates three other telescopes throughout the world:

– The sophisticated 3.4-meter WIYN telescope near Tucson, Arizona, built in 1994 in cooperation with Wisconsin and Indiana universities as well as the NOAO. The second largest telescope on Kitt Peak, it features several technological breakthroughs for preventing mirror distortion and a fiberoptic system that enables astronomers to view as many as 100 stars or galaxies at a time. The quality of the telescope’s optical system may be second only to that of the Hubble Space Telescope.

–A small telescope at the Yale Southern Observatory in El Leoncito, Argentina, used solely to map long-term changes in star positions as viewed from the southern hemisphere.

– The CIDA Schmidt telescope in Venezuela, which is used for the Quest Project, a survey of quasars visible from the equator. The Quest Project, which began earlier this year, is being conducted jointly by Yale, Indiana University, the University of the Andes and the CIDA Observatory in Venezuela.

Among the scientific research projects astronomers plan to undertake using the refurbished telescope and new detector system in Chile are:

– Studying outbursts of radiation caused when clumps of matter fall into black holes.

– Monitoring supernova outbursts in distant galaxies.

– Examining the shape of the universe by measuring time delays in gravitational lenses (the second part of the Quest Project, now underway in Venezuela).

– Learning about the evolution of young stars which may be currently forming planetary systems.

– Discovering planets using microlensing techniques (largely an Ohio State University project).

– Studying the shape and stellar distribution of our galaxy to determine details about its origin and evolution (primarily a Portuguese project).

– Responding rapidly to transient celestial events, including gamma-ray bursts, nearby supernovae, comets, and anything else which might suddenly appear.

“The versatility of the new instrument and flexible scheduling will allow us to use this relatively old and small telescope for a wide variety of exciting science projects,” Professor Bailyn said. “I think it will be a great complement to the capabilities of the much bigger WIYN telescope and to the Venezuelan survey.”

The National Optical Astronomy Observatories is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy Inc. (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

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