Using SMARTS to find stars

Students and professors from High Point University were able to make an incredible star discovery in Chile. But not just anyone can use the telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory like they did. The star-searching group was able to do this because HPU is part of the SMARTS Telescope Consortium. 

SMARTS stands for Small and Moderate Aperture Research Telescope System. The SMARTS consortium operates four 1-meter class telescopes on Cerro Tololo, Chile. Membership in SMARTS is open to individuals or institutions. Besides High Point University, other university members include Michigan State University, The Ohio State University, Yale University, Georgia State University and SUNY-Stony Brook, among others. 

Astronomers from the member institutions then are allowed to purchase time on the telescopes for their research projects. It costs $200/hour for the 1.3-meter and 1.5-meter telescopes, and $600/night for the .9-meter telescope. The 1-meter telescope is currently not available due to funding constraints. 

However the SMARTS members aren’t alone on the mountain. Because the weather and sky conditions on Cerro Tololo are so ideal for astronomical research, it’s getting a little crowded up there. 

A team of scientists from the United States and Chile identified the site in 1958 and started building telescopes in 1963. Observations began in 1965. 

The principal telescopes at CTIO are the 4-meter Victor Blanco Telescope and the 4.1-meter Southern Astrophysical Research Telescope. CTIO is one of two observatories managed by the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. The National Science Foundation funds NOAO. Once the larger telescopes were opened, NOAO announced it was going to stop supporting the smaller facilities. That’s when SMARTS took over operation, although it contracts with NOAO to maintain the telescopes it controls. 

Throughout the years, five other telescopes were built on the mountain and later moved to other facilities, including a university in Santiago and the United States Naval Observatory in Washington. Four other telescopes are either planned or in the later stages of construction on Cerro Tololo and a neighboring mountain.

So SMARTS members like HPU have access to some of these ever-expanding resources at CTIO. And the clear air and ideal conditions atop the mountain at Cerro Tololo continue to make it a popular observation spot, for SMARTS members and others alike. 

— Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!  

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