Yale and Chile Sign Agreement for Joint Education of Astronomers and Shared Telescope Observational Time

Yale University and the University of Chile will sign an agreement November 10 to collaborate in the training of Chilean students in astronomy and astrophysics.

The agreement also provides for the two institutions to have joint access to prime observational viewing time on powerful telescopes in Chile. In addition, Yale and the University of Chile will work together on major research projects in astronomy and astrophysics.

“It has opened up possibilities in our department that we could only dream about in the past,” said Astronomy Professor Sabatino Sofia, who was department chairman at the time the agreement was being negotiated. “This collaboration has brought us to a situation in which we can, in terms of instrumental capabilities, compete with the top places in the country and the world.”

Chile is the premier observational site in the Southern Hemisphere because the air turbulence is low and there are few clouds. For these reasons, several consortia from Europe, the Carnegie Foundation in the United States, and U.S. partnerships with England, Australia and other countries, are placing powerful telescopes valued at $2 billion to $3 billion in Chile. The instruments include four eight-meter telescopes known as VLTs, or “very large telescopes;” two 6.5-meter Magellan telescopes, one eight-meter Gemini South telescope and a very large radio telescope built by a European and U.S. consortium and known as ALMA, (Atacama Large Millimeter Array), which Sofia said has “unparalleled sensitivity.”

It is customary that the country hosting the placement of telescopes be granted 10 percent of the viewing time. Yale will be allowed to apply to share in this choice viewing time.

“A conservative estimate of how many people can keep these telescopes occupied is between 150 and 170. Chile has about 30 active observational astronomers,” Sofia said. “They are sharing the opportunity to use this excess resource with us in exchange for help in developing their scientific infrastructure.”

There currently are three Chilean students attending classes at Yale in the joint Ph.D. research program with the University of Chile. The graduate students spend one semester at the university in Santiago and then will complete all of the remaining requirements at Yale to prepare for their qualifying exam for a Ph.D.

“Eventually they will get a master’s degree from Yale and a Ph.D. from the University of Chile,” Sofia said. “As they develop more and more astronomers, eventually the students will do all of their course work in Santiago.”

The agreement also includes four to five joint research projects with the two institutions. Sofia said the projects involve major current astrophysical problems that require teams of researchers and costly equipment. One project, for instance, involves studying a small group of galaxies near the Milky Way, among them the Magellanic clouds, which are satellites of the Milky Way that are close enough so that astronomers can observe individual stars separately.

“This allows us to understand the evolution of galaxies near us so that we can more knowledgeably extrapolate that information to what happens to galaxies that are farther away,” he said.

The signing ceremony will be conducted at the official residence of Yale President Richard Levin on Hillhouse Avenue. Joining Levin will be Luis Riveros, rector of the University of Chile; Jorge Litvak, former dean of the medical school at the University of Chile; Jose Maza, the director of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Chile; Pierre Hohenberg, deputy provost for science and technology ; Susan Hockfield, dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences; Richard Sleight, associate dean of the graduate school of arts and sciences, and the Yale astronomy faculty.

The joint program is supported by the Fundacion Andes, which is a Chilean foundation that supports cultural and educational initiatives in Chile.

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