Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy
The Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA) consortium was formed in 1989 with the objective to create a mutually beneficial association of institutions in the southeastern United States which have relatively small departments of physics and astronomy. The 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. The instrument was to 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 30 proposals had been submitted. Today the 0.9-meter Cassegrain reflector is housed within a two-story steel and aluminum structure enclosed by a 26.5-foot Ashdome. The SARA 0.9-meter observing facility is located atop Mercedes Point (111 036’W, 31 58’N) at an altitude of 6800 feet. This location offers very stable seeing conditions and a fairly low horizon in all directions except for the northeast. In May of 2008 Butler University joined the SARA consortium as its 10th member.
Though Butler University has a slightly larger telescope than that of SARA we are unfortunately located in relatively bright skies of Indianapolis. Though research at Holcomb Observatory can and has been done with our 1.0-meter telescope, the bright sky background limits us to primarily survey type research of eclipsing variable stars and exoplanets. SARA telescopes on the other hand are located in some of the darkest locations in the world. At these locations the sky is roughly 100 times darker than our Indianapolis sky and allows for viewing of much dimmer objects than would be possible from Holcomb Observatory. Added to the KPNO SARA telescope is the southern hemisphere telescope located at Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory (CTIO), Chile, allowing Butler astronomers to observe both the northern and southern celestial hemispheres. More recently the acquisition of the SARA Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope in 2015 gives Butler students and faculty a remotely operable telescope at one of the best observing sites for optical astronomy in the world — the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) which hosts about 20 telescopes on the Spanish Canary Island of La Palma. This telescope allows Butler astronomers to explore parts of the sky that are not visible from telescopes in the United States or through the current SARA-South and SARA-North telescopes.
A typical remote observing session starts with a check on the weather in either KPNO, CTIO, or ORM . The astronomer then logs on to the telescope control computer using Virtual Network Computing (VNC is a platform independent, client-based system written by AT&T Laboratories), creates directories to hold the images, opens the dome on the telescope, observes, closes the dome on the telescope, and log off VNC. The actual images from the observing session are simply transferred back to any home or office computer. VNC is remote control software which allows you to view and fully interact with one computer desktop (the “VNC server”) using a simple program (the “VNC viewer”) on another computer desktop anywhere on the Internet. This allows our research students to be able to access, control, and collect data remotely on the SARA telescopes from Butler, thus saving on significant travel costs. The software (Maxim DL) used by the CCD cameras is identical to what us use at Butler University, so our students observing with these telescopes will not need much additional training. This same program is also used for image reduction and analysis. The fact that the students become the primary data/image takers and analyzers better prepares for a career in astronomy and astrophysics.