The sky for Delaware astronomers just got a lot darker and a lot wider.
No astrophysical wonder caused this new status and no one has gone around turning off street lights and flood lights in the region.
But a new partnership with the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA) gives researchers and stargazers from the University of Delaware and nearby Mount Cuba Astronomical Observatory access to three far-flung telescopes and the superior perspectives they offer on the night sky.
The three telescopes are in coveted “dark-sky” areas at Kitt Peak, Arizona, Cerro Tololo, Chile and La Palma on the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain.
For astronomers, a dark sky is a treasured environment that allows them to see much fainter, more distant objects and phenomena than are possible near city lights and other bright Earthly distractions. In that way, a dark sky expands the canvas, sort of the way watching a movie on a six-story IMAX screen is a much different experience than watching the same movie on a 1.5-inch wrist-watch screen.
In addition to their darker environs, all three SARA telescopes sit at altitudes more than a mile higher than the instruments available at Mount Cuba, which is about 260 feet above sea level. (Delaware’s highest area — known as the Ebright Azimuth — clocks in at a modest 450 feet.)
What’s more, no airfare is necessary to use these telescopes. With a computer, SARA’s proprietary software and an Internet connection, all of the telescopes can be controlled from afar — maybe Sharp Lab at UD, a meeting room at Mount Cuba Observatory or even a recliner in the den.
In her proposal for membership in the invitation-only consortium, Judi Provencal, resident astronomer at Mount Cuba and associate professor at UD, said the partnership would enhance research, provide students with training in techniques and technology and give astronomers greater access to quality observation time in the northern and southern hemispheres.
“This is really, really, really exciting,” said Provencal, who now directs Delaware’s partnership with SARA, which became official July 1.
Already, she said, time on these instruments is in high demand.
Time and money are limited resources for astronomers and smaller telescopes such as these are in jeopardy worldwide as much larger new telescopes gobble up an increasing amount of limited research funding.
In the same way that C-5 military cargo planes would not be deployed to search-and-rescue efforts in a flooded watershed, enormous telescopes are not useful in all research. Small and medium-sized telescopes — such as those in the SARA network — are still of significant importance.
The observatory, which is about 15 miles from UD’s main campus in Newark, opened in 1964 and its resident astronomer — Richard Herr — later became UD’s first astronomy professor. The University now has eight full-time professors of astronomy in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and offers a bachelor’s degree in astronomy.
Mount Cuba’s facilities have been in frequent use, including its Cassegrain telescope with a 24-inch-diameter aperture. More than 700 UD students at the undergraduate and graduate level have studied there and worked with its telescopes, Provencal said. The site also hosts many public events and is the headquarters of the Whole Earth Telescope project Provencal directs, a collaboration of astronomers around the world, all studying pulsating stars.
The SARA network adds almost 60 full days of telescope time each year for Delaware astronomers.
Labadie-Bartz said the new partnership makes the viewing day longer, too, with telescopes in varying time zones. He and Provencal used the Canary Islands telescope for the University’s first scheduled observation on July 3.
“The star we observed was actually two stars – a pair that orbits each other once every six days,” he said. “To us on Earth, it only appears as one point of light, since the two stars are so close together. The smaller star in this pair is actually hotter, which is unusual and means that it is significantly evolved and is now using helium, rather than hydrogen, as its source of fuel.”
Observations from SARA telescopes provided some of the data used to support recent discoveries at the IceCube Laboratory in Antarctica, where University of Delaware researchers have contributed to the study of high-energy particles known as neutrinos.
Terry Oswalt, founder of the SARA consortium and chair of the Department of Physical Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said he was pleased to welcome the University and Mount Cuba as partners. “The SARA Board was very impressed with the range of projects the team proposed,” he said.