Federal Funding Approved for Magdalena Ridge Observatory, Oct. 21, 1999

(Also see the Magdalena Ridge Observatory homepage.)

SOCORRO, N.M., October 21, 1999 -- A state-of-the-art optical observatory designed to produce high-resolution images of distant astronomical objects is scheduled for construction atop the Magdalena Mountains in the center of the state of New Mexico.

Within four or five years, the soon-to-be-constructed Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) will be used to track missile tests conducted at White Sands Missile Range during the day; and, at night, university astronomers will combine the power of the three telescopes at the facility to conduct high-resolution studies of nearby planets and faraway stars.

Funding for the proposed research facility, which will eventually cost $40 million, is being secured through the U.S. Army, which runs the missile range; while the design, construction, and operation of the observatory will be under the auspices of a university research consortium with New Mexico Tech as the lead institute. Additional members of the consortium, which also originated the proposal for the project, include New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, and the University of Puerto Rico.

Congress recently approved a U.S. Department of Defense funding bill for Fiscal Year 2000, which earmarked $3.5 million to begin the planning, design, and eventual construction of the optical telescope facility in the mountains west of Socorro. Considerable efforts were mounted by U.S. Representative Joe Skeen, as well as U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, to secure adequate funding for constructing the MRO.

The MRO facility will be located near New Mexico Tech's Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, within the boundaries of the federally mandated Langmuir Research Area. The optical observatory will sit along the main ridge of the Magdalena Mountains at an elevation of 10,600 feet above sea level, making it the fourth highest observatory site in the world.

"It's destined to be one of the highest and darkest developed observatory sites in the world," says Dr. David Westpfahl, astrophysics professor at New Mexico Tech.

Once constructed, the MRO also will become the premier facility employing a cutting-edge technology known as "optical interferometry."

By using optical interferometry, MRO will electronically link its open arrangement of three 2.4-meter telescopes to simulate the potential magnifying and resolving power of a single 50-meter telescope, much in the same way that the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope links its 27 radio separate receivers to form one gigantic instrument.

One of the designs being considered for MRO's telescopes would allow one of the telescopes to be moved on a centered track, while the other two would remain stationary as multiple images of the cosmos are obtained and stored in computers and later "cut and pasted" to form larger, more detailed single images of celestial objects.

"Optical interferometry work is being done right now with smaller telescopes, up to 1.5 meters in size," Westpfahl relates, "but the technical challenge for us will be to further develop these interferometry techniques for applications with MRO's medium-sized telescopes."

In addition, computers at the MRO facility will constantly compensate and correct for optical disturbances caused by atmospheric turbulence.

"Each telescope will have 'adaptive optics,' which basically is a device that takes out the 'twinkling' of the stars," Westpfahl explains.

By developing and combining new technologies, such as adaptive optics and optical interferometry, astronomers and other scientists using the MRO will be provided with unprecedented clarity and resolution in the images they attain of distant stars.

"We'll probably begin by looking for stars that are not round--stars with disks around them," Westpfahl reveals. "The disks around the stars might actually be debris which makes up the initial stages of formations of solar systems.

"With a facility like MRO, we'll eventually be able to see planets alongside other stars, but there's still a lot of technical development to do along these lines before we accomplish that feat," he says.

"Magdalena Ridge Observatory is certain to become a tremendous resource, not only for researchers, but for students as well--from kindergarten to post-docs," adds Van Romero, vice president for research at New Mexico Tech.