NM Tech's Eye on the Universe: Magdalena Ridge Observatory, Oct. 26, 2006

MRO Grand Opening

[Right: People gather for the opening of Magdalena Ridge Observatory.]

by George Zamora

SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 26, 2006 – A new state-of-the-art optical observatory located atop New Mexico’s Magdalena Mountains will soon be used to produce some of the most detailed data ever obtained of nearby asteroids, as well as of the far reaches of the Universe.

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO), a $50 million federally funded astronomical research facility, is now ready to receive “first light” through its 2.4-meter telescope, located near the summit of the 10,800-foot mountain range in south-central New Mexico, about 30 miles west of the New Mexico Tech campus in Socorro.

“The opening of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory is the first step in the completion of a research facility project which started 11 years ago, when the U.S. Army contacted New Mexico Tech, looking for a high-altitude site for a telescope,” says Van Romero, New Mexico Tech’s vice president for research and economic development.

The MRO is primarily intended for astronomical research and includes two distinct facilities—a single 2.4-meter-diameter telescope and a moveable array of up to ten 1.4-meter-diameter telescopes linked together to form a single optical interferometer.

Initial research projects being planned for the MRO 2.4-meter telescope will be more along the lines of “classical astronomy,” MRO scientists say, starting with a study of small bodies in our own Solar System, primarily near-Earth objects such as asteroids.

During the day, which is usually down time for optical telescopes such as MRO’s 2.4-meter, the big telescope is available to be used by the U.S. Department of Defense to “fast-track” and characterize missile tests conducted at White Sands Missile Range. At night, the facility will obtain non-resolved images of satellites and other resident space objects to contribute to the space situational awareness program.

Now, with MRO’s infrastructure in place — including telecommunications, electricity, and septic systems — a late-October ribbon-cutting ceremony performed by the 2.4-meter telescope’s hemispherical enclosure heralds the research facility’s official opening.

“The MRO operates one of the largest telescopes in the world that will undertake as a primary mission the observation and physical characterization of near-Earth objects,” says MRO 2.4-meter telescope’s project scientist Eileen Ryan.

Ryan points out that in addition to its cutting-edge research and military capabilities, the MRO will be used on a daily basis as an educational facility that will be made available not only to New Mexico Tech students, but to students throughout New Mexico who wish to study the cosmos.

“There’s also a strong national security component to MRO’s operation, especially since one of the first research projects I’ll be working on there is a defense initiative in which I’m trying to add to the collective physical understanding of objects in space that are in close proximity to the Earth, such as asteroids,” Ryan says.

“We are very grateful to our Congressional delegation from New Mexico for supporting and obtaining funding for this instrument,” Ryan adds. “We now look forward to reciprocating by returning great results with the MRO to both to our scientific and military partners.”

Plans call for computers to drive some of the optical components at the MRO facility to constantly compensate and correct for optical disturbances caused by atmospheric turbulence — a burgeoning technology known as adaptive optics, which is being refined and fine-tuned specifically for MRO.

The other facility being built on Magdalena Ridge, the optical interferometer will have the potential to place its various smaller telescopes in a precise baseline arrangement that accurately simulates the magnifying and resolving power of a single 400-meter telescope, an area larger than a football stadium.

After the first phase of construction of the interferometer is completed in Fall 2007, images of faraway planets, stars, and galaxies will be obtained by each of MRO’s 1.4-meter optical/ infrared telescopes and processed in high-speed computers to form larger, more detailed single images of faint and complex objects in the infinite darkness of space many times faster than other existing or planned telescope arrays.

With MRO’s extensive and unprecedented capabilities, astrophysicists will be able to better study and understand the processes of star and planet formation, stellar accretion and mass loss, and active galactic nuclei.

By developing and combining these new technologies, astrophysicists and other researchers using the MRO will be provided with unprecedented clarity and resolution in the images they attain of distant stars and other celestial objects.

“We’ll probably begin interferometry research work with the MRO by looking for stars that are not round — stars with disks around them,” says Dave Westpfahl, astrophysics professor at New Mexico Tech and MRO’s deputy principal investigator. “The disks around the stars are of great interest to us because they 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 distinguish planets alongside other stars,” says Westpfahl, “but there’s still a lot of technical development to do along these lines before we accomplish that feat.”

“Since MRO also has a strong component in its mission to support and enhance education and public outreach in New Mexico, the research facility is destined to become a tremendous resource, not only for astrophysicists, but for all New Mexico students as well — from kindergarten to post-docs,” Romero says.

“With MRO’s official opening, now the students will also have the opportunity to actually use the facility,” he adds, “which is a longstanding culture at New Mexico Tech. . . . Not only Tech graduate students, but undergraduates as well, will get to actively participate in the university’s research process.”

New Mexico Tech is the lead institute of a research-university consortium that was formed to design, develop, construct, test, and operate the MRO. Additional members of the international consortium include the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in England, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, University of Puerto Rico, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

For more information about New Mexico Tech’s MRO project, log onto the research facility’s website at www.mro.nmt.edu.