A group of researchers stand outside El Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma, Canary Islands.

Powerful lenses off Africa’s northwestern coast, in Arizona and Chile are accessible.

[dropcap]A[/dropcap]stronomy professor Robert Berrington has spent countless hours staring at the skies from various observatories around the country the past 24 years, but his journey to the stars began in third grade when he stumbled across a science fiction story.

“My parents enrolled me in a summer reading club at my library in Hudson, Ohio, and I found this book in the fiction section about people who went to the moon, walked around and came back,” he said. “I was immediately hooked. I wanted to know everything about the planets and other objects and began reading every magazine about astronomy I could get my hands on. I was flabbergasted you could see galaxies and nebulas.

“A few years later, I had a friend whose father was a physics teacher at a local high school that had opened a new observatory. The teacher sold me his old telescope. Once I got that, I began star hopping – finding all the objects from the magazines and books I had been reading.”

In his dual role of teacher and researcher at Ball State, Berrington can offer his students something he didn’t have when he was in college: remote access to telescopes across the country and halfway around the world.

Ball State is a member of the Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy (SARA), whose 13 institutions operate three telescopes. The most recent one to become available is the reactivated telescope at El Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma, one of Spain’s Canary Islands. Constructed in the 1980s, the facility takes advantage of the volcanic island’s excellent atmospheric conditions. El Roque is on a rocky point more than 7,800 feet above sea level and very close to the top of the high-altitude mountain it’s named for, according to Lisa M. Kuriscak, an assistant professor of Spanish.

The association acquired El Roque in 2014, and Berrington attended the rededication ceremonies last fall. He said the equipment offers advantages for both research and teaching.

“The telescope is considerably east of Muncie, and nighttime occurs five hours earlier,” he said. “This means for afternoon classes here, it is nighttime on La Palma, and actual nighttime observations can occur during the scheduled classroom time.”

More time to study a star

Berrington said the research advantages of the new telescope also benefit students who examine how the brightness of a star changes with time, known as a time series analysis of the brightness of a celestial object.

“Traditionally, the longest duration you can continuously observe an object was limited by the length of a night. Now with the advent of remote observing — controlling the telescope from afar — and the ability to coordinate the new telescope with the telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, or KPNO, in Arizona, we can observe a star continuously for longer than the length of a night.

“We can start our observations of an object on La Palma and transition those observations from La Palma to KPNO when it becomes nighttime in Arizona, about seven hours later. This permits a more complete coverage of these objects and a greater understanding of these objects.”

Boost for astronomy

In addition to telescopes in Arizona and the Canary Islands, Ball State can access one in Chile. SARA astronomers have been using these sites for research ranging from asteroids to quasars, and students use them in classrooms and for public outreach events.

Through its membership in SARA, Ball State has 55 nights annually that students and faculty can use for instruction and research.

The study of astronomy at Ball State has taken a major leap forward in the last year due to remote access to this third telescope and the opening of Charles W. Brown Planetarium, said Ron Kaitchuck, a physics and astronomy professor and planetarium director.

“I’ve been here since the late 1960s, and we’ve come a very long way,” he said. “The study of astronomy has taken off on this campus because of the world-class facilities we now have.” 

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