The Role of Small Telescopes in Modern Astronomy, October 14-15, 1996, Lowell Observatory

Back to the Future: The Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA) Observatory at Kitt Peak and the Future of Small Telescopes at National Sites

Terry D. Oswalt
Florida Tech / SARA

In 1995 the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA), a consortium of the Florida Institute of Technology, East Tennessee State University, University of Georgia, Valdosta State College and Florida International University recommissioned a 0.9-m telescope formerly operated by NOAO. The SARA Observatory (below) is located at a new site on Kitt Peak near Mercedes Point, just west of the Burrell Schmidt telescope. In this talk we outline the status of our project, and the benefits such university collaborations offer in these times of declining numbers of publicly available small research telescopes and reduced employment expectations in astronomy.

Eighteen Ph.D. astronomers at the five SARA institutions now use our facility at Kitt Peak and bring students to the observatory on a regular basis. Current SARA research interests span all areas of observational astronomy (see individual departments' homepages for details). Each institution is guaranteed a fraction of the available observing time proportional to its financial investment. Observing time is available to non-SARA astronomers either by direct collaboration or on a contractual basis. This research facility has had an unexpected but welcome side effect: each SARA member institution has hired at least one new astronomer since the consortium was formed, a non-trivial contribution to the astronomical employment picture.

The SARA telescope is equipped with a four-port instrument selector which allows use of several instruments during a given night of observation. It is already fully computer-controlled. Over the next several months we will begin experimenting with remote robotic scheduling of the telescope via the Internet, with a goal of making the data gathered by it available to classroom students, as well as to on-site observers. Through optimized and queued scheduling we hope to achieve a much higher level of productivity and telescope access than could be achieved by the traditional scheduling methods used at most observatories. This is particularly important to faculty like ours, who have heavy teaching responsibilities and cannot travel to the Observatory more than a few times per year. Mostly because the telescope is not yet fully subscribed, but also to provide a sound financial base for instrument improvements and the inevitable gradual increase in operating and maintenance costs, SARA plans to add one or two new institutional members in the near future.

Undergraduate student involvement in research is one of SARA's primary interests. With funding provided by the NSF in 1995, SARA established the first multi-institution Research Experiences for Undergraduates site. SARA recruits student interns from around the U.S.; each spends the summer working with a faculty mentor at one of the SARA institutions. In addition to two multi-day workshops which bring all participants together at one of the SARA schools, each intern plans and executes an observing run at the SARA Observatory in Arizona. At summer's end, each student submits a summary of his/her research results, which is published in the IAPPP Communications.

SARA intends to take an increasing role in helping to represent the interests of astronomers who need the smaller telescopes to conduct their research. As a first step, we have recently agreed to be host institution for the North American Small Telescope Cooperative (NASTeC). The purpose of NASTeC is to call the general astronomical community's attention to the wide distribution and availability of small-to-intermediate research telescopes and to foster collaborative observational projects. This effort is currently facilitated by a website database and bulletin board administered by SARA.

The diminishing availability of small (1-2m) telescopes at national facilities requires that new models for operating such facilities must be developed if they are to be preserved for the next generation of astronomers. Their users, typically faculty at small universities, must achieve an equitable voice in policy decisions affecting those facilities which support their research. In exchange, they must assume a larger role in the facilities' operation, management and funding. Consortia of small universities such as SARA are one model for meeting these goals.

We gratefully acknowledge support from the National Science Foundation (AST-9423922), the Research Corporation and the State of Florida Technological Research and Development Authority. Special thanks is extended to the National Optical Astronomy Observatories and Astronomical Consultants & Equipment, Inc.

Additional information can be found at the following websites:

SARA Observatory: 
SARA REU Program: 
Florida Tech:     
East Tennessee State U.:
University of Georgia:
Valdosta State University:
Florida International U.:

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