CHAPEL HILL -- The N.C. congressional delegation has teamed up to land a $3 million federal appropriation for the University of North Carolina at ChapelHill's stake in a state-of-the-art telescope in Chile's Andes Mountains.
The funding, part of the Defense Advanced Research Program Administration's fiscal 1997 budget through the U.S. Department of Defense, was announced today (Dec. 16) at a joint news conference by U.S. Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., and UNC-CH Chancellor Michael Hooker.
Carolina is one of four partners in the $28 million Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR). The lightweight, computer-controlled, 4-meter telescope will sit atop Cerro Panchon, a 9,000-foot mountain in Chile's northern Andes, and will be remotely operated from Chapel Hill. Other alliance members are Michigan State University, the National Optical Astronomy Observatories and Brazil. Construction will start next year and is expected to be completed by 2001.
"This telescope will yield economic benefits for our state," Faircloth said. "Students can receive scientific training, and it will serve as a magnet for attracting more high-tech businesses to the Triangle. I'm proud to be part of this project in Chapel Hill."
Hooker said the university was grateful to Faircloth for leading an intense effort by members of the N.C. congressional delegation to provide information about UNC-CH's role in the project to lawmakers considering the Department of Defense budget.
"Lauch Faircloth quickly grasped the magnitude of this telescope and the promise it holds not only for scientists and the federal government, but also for North Carolina's economy and as an educational tool for students of all ages in North Carolina and beyond," Hooker said. "We're excited that SOAR is moving forward and that federal dollars appropriated on behalf of Carolina will help build the most advanced optical telescope of its kind. It will provide a major boost to the quality of science training we can offer undergraduate, graduate and public school students."
Hooker also praised the efforts of the entire N.C. congressional delegation, including Reps. Charles Taylor of Brevard and Bill Heffner of Concord, as well as former Rep. Fred Heineman of Raleigh, for spearheading efforts to push the appropriation through the U.S. House of Representatives.
"This new federal funding helps ensure that UNC-Chapel Hill will play a major role in the worldwide astronomy community during the 21st century," said Dr. Wayne Christiansen, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the Morehead Observatory.
Brazil announced its involvement in the telescope project in October, paving the way for that nation, through its science organizations, to pay for about half of the $28 million in capital costs. UNC-CH and Michigan State will share most of the rest of the cost, while the National Optical Astronomy Observatories will supply operating funds. The federal appropriation will cover half of UNC-CH's commitment to date for the project. The other $3 million is coming from private donors. Astronomers at UNC-CH and the national observatories started plans for SOAR more than a decade ago.
Hooker said a crucial component of the telescope is a plan to share information with students in other universities and public schools in North Carolina.
"The SOAR telescope can help generate tremendous interest in science and astronomy by appealing to the natural curiosity young students have about the stars, the planets and other celestial phenomena," Hooker said. "We're excited about adding this project to a growing list of activities aimed at taking the resources of the university directly into the classrooms of public school students and the homes of North Carolina citizens."
Hooker announced his support for plans that UNC-CH scientists have developed to put SOAR findings in the hands of public school students based on proposals submitted by educators statewide. Faculty in the department of physics and astronomy plan to use the N.C. Information Highway and other networks under development to send a simplified telescope "control room" to middle and high schools. Students at a remote terminal could control a telescope on the UNC-CH campus that would point at a spot in the sky and take a picture that would appear on their computer screen within a minute. At the same time, students and their teachers also would have images from the SOAR telescope delivered to them for study and incorporation into classroom curricula.
"That would not be a passive process," Christiansen said. "The public school students would have the opportunity to make specific requests about the images being recorded by SOAR. We're committed to taking frontier astronomy directly to students. The educational opportunities possible through the telescope are immense. We think students will enjoy seeing first-hand how a sophisticated telescope works, why scientists do what they do and apply that to their own studies."
For astronomers, SOAR is extremely important, Christiansen said. Through the Internet and other high-tech equipment on site, astronomers in Chapel Hill, East Lansing, Mich., Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo - or anywhere else -- will conduct research and educational projects without traveling to the remote Chile site. The telescope will deliver the best quality images possible with a large ground-based telescope. At infrared wavelengths, SOAR will rival the Hubble Space Telescope at a fraction of the cost, he said.
UNC-CH and Michigan State will be the only U.S. universities owning a major share of a sophisticated telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, Christiansen said. Chile is the ideal site because it receives less than an inch of annual rainfall, delivering clear nights more than 90 percent of the time. That factor, coupled with the extraordinary stability of the atmosphere above the Andean foothills, makes Chile the premiere astronomical site in that region of the world, he said.
The U.S. government has given the Department of Defense responsibility for identifying and monitoring objects near Earth's orbit that could potentially crash on land or water, Christiansen said. He cited the mid-November crash of Russia's $64 million Mars96 mission. The rocket, part of a six-ton probe due to reach Mars next fall, fell to Earth after failing to reach a stable orbit. Scientists still do not know exactly where the rocket crashed because its rapidly decaying orbit could not be accurately pinpointed with current tracking equipment in the Southern Hemisphere, he said.
"Had SOAR been in existence, it might have helped define the orbit and allowed us to predict where the Mars96 probe was going to crash," Christiansen said.
Final design studies for the telescope, led by Dr. Gerald Cecil, associate professor of physics and astronomy at UNC-CH, are under way in Tucson, Ariz., at the national observatories' office. By next fall, the telescope's primary mirror is expected to be fused into the proper form, with a polishing process scheduled for completion by the end of 1998. Operation should begin in 2001.
Internet Note: The Internet address -- http://www.physics.UNC.edu/~cecil/SOAR.html -- contains more information about the telescope and a diagram that can be downloaded. News Services also has additional background, charts, slides and photographs.