SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

SARA Continues To Explore The Skies

For centuries, humans have grown increasingly curious about what lies in the vast unknown that is outer space. In 1989, four universities formed a consortium to further astronomical knowledge in the Southeastern United States, specifically within institutions of higher education with smaller departments of physics and astronomy. The Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy, or SARA, was created.

“Astronomy, though often considered a ‘pure science’ without obvious applications is, in fact, responsible for a huge amount of ‘tech transfer’ in society,” said Dr. Terry Oswalt, professor of physics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and chair of the consortium. 

Today, SARA is a consortium of 10 colleges and universities (in order of membership): Florida Institute of Technology, East Tennessee State University, Florida International University, Valdosta State University in Georgia, Clemson University in South Carolina, Ball State University in Indiana, Agnes Scott College in Georgia, the University of Alabama, Valparaiso University in Indiana, Butler University in Indiana, Texas A&M University-Commerce, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, and the Instituto de Astrofisica de Canarias. 

Oswalt cites fields, such as technology, medicine, and even business, all of which utilize astronomy in some way. “I haven’t run into anyone yet who isn’t interested in the latest breaking news in astronomy, like the recent Event Horizon Telescope imaging of the M87 supermassive black hole.” 

Image from SARA.

Inaugural members of SARA were Florida Tech, East Tennessee State University, the University of Georgia, and Valdosta State University. These universities formed SARA in response to a 1988 Letter of Opportunity from the director of the National Optical Astronomy Observatories stating that the No. 1 36-inch telescope stationed at the Kitt Peak National Observatory would be decommissioned due to budget constraints and would be awarded to the institution that could use it most productively.

SARA was chosen from a pool of approximately 30 proposals to be awarded the telescope in April 1990. By 1993, the telescope was being reassembled at its new site on Mercedes Point at Kitt Peak, just over 50 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona.

According to their website, SARA’s main objective is “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.”

Over its 30 years, SARA has grown to include 15 universities and three telescopes in Arizona, Chile, and the Canary Islands, and they are continuously expanding their reach. “We are in the preliminary stages of seeking one or two sites in Asia and/or Australia that would give us 24/7 coverage of the entire celestial sphere,” said Oswalt, adding that 24/7 coverage is one of SARA’s main goals at the moment.

SARA has proven to accomplish what it set out to do. Throughout the years, the consortium has preserved several facilities that would have otherwise been shut down by the federal government. This has led them to participate in studies that have achieved great strides in astronomy, proving that these facilities are still useful.

According to Oswalt, these studies include the first detection of a planet that seems to have survived the red giant stage of its host star, an occultation of Pluto by a background star that contributed to the successful New Horizons mission, and “weather” in the atmosphere of Neptune’s moon Triton among countless other achievements. 

Image from SARA.

Dr. Dieter Hartmann, professor of physics and astronomy at Clemson University, sees the importance of astronomy as a deeper understanding of our universe. “It provides an ultimate connection between humans and the universe,” Hartmann said.

While all of SARA’s accomplishments are notable, Hartmann said students are its greatest accomplishment. “The engagement of students has always been a main component of SARA, so we are very proud of them,” Hartmann said. The telescopes provide students who are interested in astronomy a chance to further their curiosity and knowledge of the universe. To the students with access, it is an opportunity to use a research-class telescope. It’s not huge, but it’s their first experience to go from a college level to a professional level of research, so it’s an exciting experience for them.”

Hartmann said gamma-ray bursts are one of his main research interests. “For a few hours of the day, these bursts can be observed with the SARA telescopes,” Hartmann said, further noting the many benefits SARA telescopes give to professional researchers and students alike.

Despite the steady interest and growth, SARA still faces challenges, including budget cuts. “The costs of doing business at the national observatories continues to increase because the federal agencies that support them have been cutting funding and closing facilities,” Oswalt said. This leaves the burden of finances on the facilities that are funded by the universities.

Oswalt said it takes the financial support of five universities to operate the telescopes each year. This support provides about 20 hours/day of coverage in the northern hemisphere and approximately 15 hours’ coverage in the south. Although the telescopes are small, interest in SARA continues to increase. 

“Interest continues to be strong, even in this day of 10-m to 30-m telescopes,” Oswalt said. “When the time comes to develop a new site, we will be seeking new members.” 

Hartmann said schools with an interest in joining SARA should contact them. “They will be invited to write a proposal to join the group,” he said. “They tell us why they would be a good partner in the enterprise.” 

To learn more about SARA and all of its accomplishments and goals, you can visit their website at saraobservatory.org. Until then, keep looking to the stars.

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