Air Force Supporting Observatory With $25 Million

SOCORRO, N.M. October 19, 2015 – New Mexico Tech signed a five-year, $25 million cooperative agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory to support continued development of the interferometer at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory.

Dr. Van Romero, vice president of research at Tech, said the new funding will allow Tech to complete three telescopes, mounts and enclosures on the mountaintop facility.

“This isn’t the largest award I’ve been associated with at Tech, but it’s the most significant because this will get us to the point where we can do science,” he said. “Telescopes can either make dim things brighter or small things big. This interferometer will be the best in the world at making little things big. We will be able to see fine details on far-away objects.”

Romero said the Air Force is interested in developing expertise in ground-based interferometry so that it can later deploy a space-based interferometer for observing satellites and asteroids.

“The Magdalena Ridge Observatory will allow them to test the technology on the ground, then allow them to do interferometry in space,” he said.

University president Dr. Daniel H. Lopez said Tech can thank the N.M. Congressional delegation for supporting the university’s efforts and for recognizing the importance of funding cutting edge science.

“We want to thank the entire delegation for recognizing that funding the development of space situation awareness projects is in the nation’s interest,” he said. “Their support led to this open-source competitive bid where we were able to prevail because of our expertise in the field.”

Lopez said Sen. Martin Heinrich and Congressman Steve Pearce led the effort, along with Sen. Tom Udall, who is on the Appropriations Committee. Lopez said Congressman Ben Ray Lujan and Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham were vocal in support of funding for this project.

New Mexico Tech has already received $70 million to develop the interferometer facility, including buildings, piers, delay lines and the fringe tracker. Tech will pursue other funding to further develop the facility.

MRO program director Ifan Payne said the new round of funding will allow the facility’s interferometer to make significant steps forward. 

“This is the most exciting time for the MRO since our initial funding came to an end five years ago,” Payne said. “With this funding, we will be able to complete three telescopes, which will enable proof of concept for the superiority of the performance of the interferometer.”

Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman, Project Scientist, said the new cooperative agreement with the Air Force Research Lab marks an important milestone in the development of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer.

“We will be able to demonstrate the sensitivity and the closure phase precision of the interferometer,” Dr. Creech-Eakman said. “That relates to how well, ultimately, we can make images. Because this project will look at objects in geosynchronous orbit – as in man-made satellites – we want to prove our capability for looking at stationary objects, which are different from stars that we track as the Earth rotates. Once we have three telescopes, we can demonstrate what a fully-finished MROI can do.”

Creech-Eakman said the first telescope should be installed on the mountain in 2016.

“We’re going to be very busy,” she said. “It’s great to be moving forward.”

Tech took delivery of the first telescope in 2014. Romero said that with one telescope, light can be gathered. With two telescopes, scientists can create interference fringes which contain spatial information. Three telescopes add information about orientation. With four telescopes, astronomers will be able to create images and do leading-edge scientific investigations. The ultimate goal is to have 10 telescopes in the array.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech