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Telescope in Chile gives MSU astronomers a better look at the stars

Way up in the Andes mountains sits a little bit of East Lansing. On the Cerro Pachón mountain in Chile, the Southern Astrophysical Research, or SOAR, telescope looks out at the stars. It’s a partnership between four institutions including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Michigan State University. Talk about working remotely.

Chile is home to about 40% of the world’s astronomy infrastructure, a figure that is expected to rise to 70% within the next few years. It’s because of the Andes mountains, which tower above the atmosphere for a clean view of the night sky. Shannon Schmoll, the director of the Abram’s Planetarium at MSU explained.

“Atmosphere is not great for astronomy because it causes things to  twinkle,” Schmoll said. “The northern part of Chile is incredibly dry, and that means you’ve got really clear nights, which we really need for astronomy. Michigan does not give that to us, it’s over 300 days of clear nights in Chile, in the northern part.”

Getting time on a telescope for projects is usually pretty difficult. Scientists have to submit proposals for their time and it’s often only for a short period. Since SOAR is a timeshare between four institutions, researchers at MSU are guaranteed three to four nights a month. This allows them to work on bigger projects that require longer stretches collecting data.

Funding is another hoop scientists have to jump through in order to work on these projects. It can often take years to get a grant, and scientific funding is incredibly competitive. Funding for projects that involve SOAR often come from the National Science Foundation, which Schmoll describes as focused on the big questions “that help us understand our place in the universe.”

Since COVID shutdowns took place, researchers haven’t been able to visit the telescope, but there is a remote observation area at the Abrams Planetarium. Astro-tourism is a big part of the  Chilean economy. There are tours that take visitors up to the SOAR telescope and others nearby. Schmoll has visited a few times and said it’s “one of the most beautiful skies.”

“It’s breathtaking, I think is the best way to put it, and not just because you are at a really high altitude with less oxygen,” Schmoll said. “The Milky Way looks like a cloud in the sky. There are sometimes astronomers who haven’t seen the Milky Way in a long time, that when they go down they think clouds are rolling in, and no it’s just the Milky Way.”

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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