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UNC Sets Sights on Telescope Project

This is precisely what professors and researchers in UNC's Department of Physics & Astronomy hope to accomplish within the next decade through their possible participation in a project to build one of the most phenomenal telescopes on earth.

"This is the largest telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and equal to the largest in the world," said Chris Clemens, an assistant astronomy professor at UNC.

The project, titled the South African Large Telescope, or SALT, is part of the mission of South Africa's post-apartheid government to re-energize its technology industry and attract future scientists.

A consortium of universities and science agencies around the world will collaborate to build SALT. The project, which is set to be completed in 2006, will cost about $30 million.

Clemens said the telescope's features not only allow scientists to observe and examine faint objects but also distinguish the speed of light and analyze the relative intensities of each particle.

UNC researchers are seeking to use 10 percent of SALT's observation time. But scientists must raise $1 million within the next year and another $3 million in the next three years to participate in the SALT project. "We plan to receive a combination of funds from the University and private donors," Clemens said.

He also said the project will proceed without funds from UNC but expressed the importance of this telescope as a gateway to make competitive research conclusions. "UNC astronomers have never had a resource such as this one to study distant galaxies and learn more about the history of our universe," Clemens said.

Joining the project will allow UNC to obtain remarkable gains. Clemens said the University will expand its reach to international students and build connections with universities worldwide.

"Astronomy is a good program, but, with the right tools, it could be a world-class program," he said.

And Carney said the project will help all UNC students and faculty involved in any program in the department.

But researchers said the SALT telescope is not where the project ends --researchers plan to combine SALT and the already existing Southern Observatory for Astronomical Research telescope to advance scientific research.

UNC researcher Wayne Christiansen decided to build the Chilean telescope in 1986 as a tribute to the University's bicentennial celebration in 1993.

SOAR's Chilean telescope magnifies and gathers light to make images more intense by focusing in on one point. In collaboration with other universities and national observatories, researchers will be able to detect images from SOAR and follow them up with the SALT telescope.

"Intentions for the project are to make UNC one of the leading universities in research of astronomy in the world," Christiansen said.

Junior physics and astronomy major Adam Crain, a computer programmer for the SOAR telescope, said he is excited and amazed about what researchers are going to observe from the ground.

He also said UNC astronomers will be able to obtain images from the Chilean telescope over the Internet. "It is not practical to travel back and forth from the countries because traveling is time-consuming," he said. Crain is currently working on software that controls the telescope from the Chapel Hill area.

Although sufficient funds have not yet been obtained for the collaboration of this project, UNC researchers and astronomers still anticipate its scientific advancements as a landmark for the future. Clemens said, "UNC is engaged in pushing back the boundaries of knowledge with tools as competitive as Harvard (University)."

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