Looking towards the stars

On Saturday 25 October, Dean Niels Chr. Nielsen officially opened Aarhus University’s southernmost permanent research facility – the new SONG telescope on the island of Tenerife.

2014.10.30 | Louise Børsen-Koch

Dean Niels Chr. Nielsen, Science and Technology, held the official opening speech and unveiled a copper plaque inscribed with the names of the three co-owning institutions and the contributing foundations. (Photo: Christina Troelsen)

Dramatic cloud formations stretched from the volcano Teide in the background to above the many guests who had gathered on Saturday afternoon at the Teide Observatory near the top of Mount Izaña just north of the Teide National Park. The clouds accompanied the speakers with occasional claps of thunder in the distance, but the weather stayed dry and the sun shone brightly on the white SONG telescope – the focus of the day’s activities and situated at a height of 2,400 metres on the mountain top.

 

The official inauguration was held in front of the white SONG container, which was built at the same time as the telescope and contains all the technical equipment. The Danish flag (the Dannebrog) was unfurled beside the container, along with the Spanish flag, the distinctive white, blue and yellow flag of the Canary Islands, and the European Union’s blue flag with golden stars, all of which bore testimony to the fact that SONG is an international research collaboration.

 

See a short video from the event here.

 

The event was hosted by the Stellar Astrophysics Centre, Aarhus University, and the approximately 150 guests attending the opening were researchers and representatives from Aarhus University, the University of Copenhagen, the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canaries (IAC – the Spanish partners in the Canary Islands), and authorities and foundations that contributed to the SONG project, as well as representatives from China, which is already participating in the SONG project, and researchers from South Africa, Chile, the USA, Australia, Germany and the UK, who are planning to take part in the network.

 

This is just the beginning

Professor Jørgen Christensen-Dalsgaard, director of the Stellar Astrophysics Centre and overall leader of the entire SONG project, began by thanking the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canaries (IAC) for their cooperation and hospitality, which gave rise to the first telescope in the SONG network being located in Tenerife.

“It’s been a long road and it has cost blood, sweat and tears, but thanks to an excellent team of researchers and technicians in both Denmark and Tenerife, the problems are solved and we’re now standing here at not just the opening of a fantastic new research station, but also the beginning of a worldwide network of SONG telescopes. In the words of Churchill: ‘... it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning’,” said Professor Christensen-Dalsgaard with pride in his voice.

 

Eight years ago, Professor Christensen-Dalsgaard and colleagues at Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen came up with the idea of building the SONG telescope. Although their knowledge about the stars and exoplanets has changed very much in recent years, the telescope has met the scientific objectives of the project in full.

 

A big day for Danish astronomy

Dean Niels Chr. Nielsen, Science and Technology, had the honour of officially declaring the SONG telescope open and unveiling an attractive copper plaque inscribed with the names of the three co-owning institutions and the foundations contributing to the project. These are the VILLUM FOUNDATION, the Carlsberg Foundation, the Danish Council for Independent Research, the European Research Council and the Danish National Research Foundation.

The dean emphasised that it was an important day for Danish astronomy and Danish universities.

“With the opening of the Hertzsprung SONG Telescope, we will possibly get closer to one of the greatest and most fundamental questions – is there life on other planets? This is such an epic and poetic task, and it’s underlined by the name SONG in the nicest way possible,” said the dean.

With the inauguration of the SONG telescope, Aarhus University has acquired a new research station almost 6,000 kilometres south of Station Nord, which is the northernmost one.

“This inauguration means that we’re opening our southernmost permanent research station and, when the entire SONG network is completed, it will mean that the stars never set over Aarhus University – nor the University of Copenhagen and the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canaries,” said the dean and thanked both the partners and the contributors to the project.

 

Bigger is not always better

One of the ideas associated with the SONG network is that it should consist of relatively small and not particularly expensive telescopes in order to realistically build and complete the project in the foreseeable future. At just 1 metre in diameter, the SONG telescope is smaller than many other modern telescopes, the technical equipment is installed in an adjacent shipping container, and it can all be controlled remotely via an ordinary Internet connection. The price was DKK 30 million, which is cheap compared with telescopes in other parts of the world, and a new telescope based on the prototype will cost approximately DKK 15 million.

Representing one of the contributors to the project, Thomas Sinkjær – director of the Danish National Research Foundation – was also among the speakers. He pointed out in his speech that the telescope is an example of bigger not necessarily always being better, which he noted with satisfaction as a provider of funds.

He also praised the SONG project for being ambitious and visionary, and for building up close collaboration between a number of universities.

“Wanting to build a global network of telescopes is truly ambitious, and an example of reaching the skies – and even further – if we join forces,” he said.

 

Heading for the stars

Special thanks came from a number of sources to Associate Professor Frank Grundahl, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Aarhus University – the project scientist for SONG and a supporting force all the way through from the initial idea to the completion of the project, in spite of problems and delays along the way. Praise was also given to Mads Fredslund Andersen, support astronomer for the project and developer of the software for the remote control of the telescope from Aarhus.

After the opening ceremony, guests took it in turn to take a closer look at the SONG telescope and they were shown both the telescope itself and the technical equipment in the shipping container. They also had an opportunity to visit and hear about some of the other research facilities in the area.

The evening concluded beautifully with the sunset behind Teide and the appearance of the starry sky when darkness fell. The Milky Way was very bright above the SONG telescope as an image that the road to great new research breakthroughs is now open, and that the answer might be found to the big question of whether there is life out there among the billions of stars.

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