The 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 designed to increase the telescope's value as a research tool.
The telescope, which has a mirror one meter in diameter, is located at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile. It has been operated by NOAO since 1973 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, says Charles Bailyn, 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 track both optical light and infrared radiation, thus greatly increasing the telescope's versatility, Professor Bailyn says. Yale and NOAO will install a new computer control system and new focus mechanisms, as well as a system to 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 says. "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 says. "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."
Those projects include:
* 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.
* Learning about the evolution of young stars which may be currently forming planetary systems.
* Responding rapidly to transient celestial events, including gamma-ray bursts, nearby supernovae, comets, and anything else which might suddenly appear.