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A Brief History of SARA

The Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA) consortium operates three telescopes: the 0.9-m SARA-KP at Kitt Peak in Arizona, and the 0.6-m SARA-CT at Cerro Tololo in Chile, and the 1.0-m SARA-RM (formerly the JKT) telescope at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in the Canary Islands. 

Forming the SARA Consortium

SARA was formed in 1989 with members Florida Tech, ETSU, UGA, and VSU. The objective was to create a mutually beneficial association of institutions of higher education in the southeastern United States which have relatively small departments of astronomy and physics, and whose faculty members are all actively engaged in astronomical research. The fifth institution, FIU, joined SARA in 1992, and the sixth, Clemson University, joined in 1999.

The SARA consortium was formed in response to a 1988 Letter of Opportunity addressed to the American astronomical community. In April of that year, Dr. Sidney C. Wolff, Director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO), announced that the No. 1 36-inch telescope at the Kitt Peak National Observatory (KPNO) would be decommissioned due to budget constraints. This instrument would be awarded (in the form of a permanent loan) to that institution which could use it most productively, the only provision being that the telescope be moved from the site it was occupying. The first meeting of members of the four charter SARA institutions was held in March 1989, and a formal proposal was submitted to the National Science Foundation in September of that year. SARA was notified that its proposal had been successful in April 1990; a total of approximately thirty proposals had been submitted.

Choosing a Site

A new site for the No. 1 36-inch telescope (now the SARA telescope) was chosen in July 1990. After extensive geological testing a new site, on Mercedes Point at Kitt Peak, was selected. During the summer of 1990 the telescope components were disassembled and placed in storage; the original structure which housed the telescope was then demolished. A new structure for the SARA facility was designed by the architectural firm of Stanley Black of Boston, and construction of the facility was contracted to the firm of Kasper-Hall of Tucson. Structural work began in late summer of 1992. Reassmebly of the telescope began in late February of 1993.

The 0.9-meter SARA telescope was the first major research telescope installed at Kitt Peak, and since 1960 has been of service to thousands of astronomers. Constructed by the Boller and Chivens Corporation, the telescope has a Cassegrain design with an effective focal ratio of f/7.5. The massive off-axis mount incorporates 60-inch right ascension and 48-inch declination drive gears, moved by computer-controlled stepper motors. The dome position is also controlled by computer, allowing for completely robotic observing without the presence of human telescope operators.

Structure and Location

The SARA 0.9-meter observing facility is located atop Mercedes Point (111 036’W, 31 58’N), approximately twenty meters west of the Burrell-Schmidt telescope operated by the Case Western Reserve University. The 0.9-meter Cassegrain reflector is housed within a two-story steel and aluminum structure designed by Stanley E. Black of Boston, surmounted by a 26.5-foot Ashdome. At an altitude of 6800 feet (2073 m), this location offers very stable seeing conditions and a fairly low horizon in all directions save for the northeast.

In April 1994 SARA became a member of the North American Small Telescope Cooperative; the SARA 0.9-m facility at Kitt Peak is NASTeC node #36. Since the Summer of 1995, SARA has run a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Expanding Membership

The consortium has enjoyed considerable success, and its membership has grown beyond the founding members. Current consortium members include Florida Institute of Technology, the University of Georgia, East Tennessee State University, Valdosta State University, Florida International University, Clemson University, Ball State University, Agnes Scott College, University of Alabama, Valparaiso University, Butler University, Texas A&M University-Commerce, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the University of Delaware, and Mt. Cuba Astronomical Observatory.

SARA-Cerro Tololo Station

In 2010, SARA unveiled a new telescope in the southern hemisphere at Cerro Tololo in Chile. The telescope in Chile was formerly operated by Lowell Observatory in Arizona and was closed by Cerro Tololo in 1996. SARA invested about $250,000 in upgrades to make the

telescope remotely accessible over the Internet. Alone, none the members

would have been able to acquire and refurbish the telescopes in Chile or

 Arizona. But together, the 30 astronomy researchers and 10 institutions that

make up SARA form a virtual astronomy department that is as large as many

major astronomy departments in the US. The success of the consortium stems

from not only being able to pool resources, but also to acquire excellent

facilities for a very low cost.

SARA-RM Canary Islands

The most recent addition to SARA facilities is the 1.0 m Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope at the

Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos in the Canary Islands, on the island of La Palma. 

Originally opened in 1984, the telescope was decommissioned for several years before being refurbished for SARA remote operations.  At nearly 2400 m above sea level, Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos experiences excellent conditions for astronomical observations.  

The three SARA telescopes are separated by thousands of miles. In the same way having two eyes gives depth perception, the SARA network gives astronomers the ability to measure distances and orbits for such objects as potentially hazardous asteroids. In addition, because they are at different longitudes, the telescopes allow members to stay focused on an object for more than the 10 or 12 hours typical of one site.

Observing flexibility is even further improved by the ability to remotely access the two telescopes from college labs or even professor’s homes. Professors and their students can now operate one or both of the telescopes from their university labs on assigned nights, sometimes changing schedules at the last minute to accommodate unexpected opportunities.

Panoramic view of the SARA-CT site.  The Cerro Tololo summit, with the CTIO telescopes are visible in the background. (W. Keel)

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