Tech's Magdalena Ridge Observatory Now Open for Business, Oct. 8, 2008

Magdalena Ridge Observatory By Thomas Guengerich

SOCORRO, N.M., Oct. 8, 2008 – Magdalena Ridge Observatory recently marked the most significant milestone in its 13-year history. In September, New Mexico Tech’s new world class-observatory moved from construction phase to operational phase, according to Chuck Cormier, Program Director for the Observatory.

Cormier said the facility’s fast-tracking 2.4-meter optical telescope is now off federal funding and the university has initiated full stewardship of the first of two world-class astronomical facilities. MRO, as the observatory is known, also includes an advanced state-of-the-art optical interferometer still under construction that will eventually incorporate ten 1.4-meter telescopes.

New Mexico Tech physics faculty first conceived the project in the early 1990s. The 2.4-meter telescope features a mirror built for the Hubble Space Telescope, which was not chosen by NASA. The mirror was installed at Magdalena Ridge in October 2006, and has been in a testing and set-up phase for nearly two years. The manufacturer, EOS Technologies of Tucson, Ariz., will continue to conduct final performance adjustments through May 2009. In the meantime, observatory scientists are supporting several funded projects and the telescope is officially open for use by paying customers, including external users, Tech faculty, and students.

"The 2.4-meter telescope has now joined EMRTC, Playas, ICASA and other research divisions in the New Mexico Tech family of cost centers,” said newly-appointed director of the 2.4-meter telescope facility, Dr. Eileen Ryan. “We already have been successful in soliciting business from external customers like NASA and the Air Force. We are laying the groundwork to ensure that the telescope will become a valuable resource for Tech students through faculty-funded research.”

Ryan said she is actively working with the Tech administrators to pursue funding opportunities to make telescope time available directly to undergraduate and graduate students to enhance their educational experience.

“This is all very exciting,” Physics Department Chairman Dr. Dave Westpfahl said. “This means a lot of things, but the first thing I think of is what it’ll do for our students and our faculty.”

Westpfahl said the MRO will be a huge asset for students interested in astronomy.

Jason Speights, a graduate student in astrophysics, said he is excited to use the Magdalena Ridge Observatory to study the angular rotation of spiral galaxies.

“We have a huge community of people interested in astrophysics or astronomy,” he said. “This telescope enriches what’s available for students at Tech.”

Speights came to New Mexico Tech from Texas with the main intention of using the MRO to continue his astrophysics research.

“We’ll get good data on stellar phenomena,” he said. “With this telescope right here, I have easy access to scientists who can help me write proposals, get time on the telescope and help me use the telescope.”

Early in 2008, the Magdalena Ridge Observatory earned its first research contract. After a successful trial, NASA awarded a three-year $825,000 contract to study Near-Earth objects on a potential collision course with the Earth.

Eileen Ryan is now actively soliciting more paying customers to use the telescope. She is forming alliances and partnerships with organizations that have an intrinsic need or desire for knowledge or data about space.

“I am cultivating a basis for research with the National Science Foundation, NASA and the Air Force,” Ryan said. “We have used and will continue to use the telescope to characterize manmade objects for space situational awareness. We can contribute to improving national security by studying space objects in the near-Earth zone and developing methods to be able to identify in real time if they are friendly or hostile.”

Dr. Van Romero, Vice President of Research and Economic Development said the observatory represents a crowning achievement for New Mexico Tech and its main collaborator, the University of Cambridge.

“New Mexico Tech was featured in Popular Science as being a top laboratory university,” Romero said. “This observatory is way cooler than anything Popular Science considered.”

Romero, who has three degrees in physics, including two from New Mexico Tech, plans on teaching a class in the spring 2009 semester. He will use the observatory as a laboratory for a physics class in explosives engineering. Students will observe asteroids, and then conduct experiments at one of Tech’s testing ranges in blowing up meter-sized “asteroids.”

“Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?” Romero said. “I think I should be able to keep their attention.”

The observatory will be used as a set for the TV program “Blow Up U,” a reality series set at New Mexico Tech that will begin filming in early 2009.

The University has a variety of smaller telescopes at Etscorn Observatory, the largest of which has a 14-inch aperture. The 2.4-meter telescope at MRO, with a 96-inch primary light collecting mirror, will offer images with resolution at least 50 times greater than anything available at Etscorn. Instead of using an eyepiece, the MRO uses state-of-the-art instruments to acquire images.

Professor Peter Hofner said he will use the new telescope to generate infrared images of young stars. He hopes to be able to look at stars forming in our galaxy that are from 100 to 2,000 light years away from Earth.

Hofner and his students will examine and analyze young stars that are thought to form from mass accretions, from a disk around them, similar to Saturn.

“I have great hopes for using the observatory,” he said. “This instrument will greatly increase the resolution available at infrared wavelengths.”

Eileen Ryan said the telescope has three main missions: traditional astronomical research, educational outreach and national security or military work.

Ryan and her husband Dr. Bill Ryan, the telescope scientist at the 2.4-meter facility, were the researchers responsible for getting the NASA contract funding to track near-Earth objects, the work for which pays for about one-third of the telescope’s operational time.

“Our 2.4-meter telescope is the largest in NASA’s network of telescopes that discovers and characterizes Earth-crossing asteroids,” Eileen Ryan said. “As a consequence, we can see the faintest – that is, smallest – of the asteroids being discovered. That means we can contribute to solar system astronomy like never before, and on a daily basis, we are doing work that is groundbreaking and cutting edge.”

In December 2007, NASA asked Bill Ryan to track an asteroid that was on a potential collision course with Mars, with the possible impact to occur within a month’s time.

“We were able to get critical orbital information on the asteroid to NASA within 12 hours of receiving the request,” Bill Ryan said. “We were the only telescope immediately available that could take data on such a faint object, which had a visual magnitude of 24.5.”

Those observations eventually helped to rule out that a collision with Mars would occur.

Another potential customer is the Army, which is interested in using the telescope to track missiles at the White Sands Missile Range. Two special, uncommon features allow the telescope to provide detailed tracking of missiles. First, the telescope can look 2 degrees below the horizon, which gives the site a good view of the missile range 30 to 100 miles away. Also, the telescope moves 10 times faster than most traditional astronomical telescopes, and can keep up with a missile rapidly traversing the sky.

Tech was quite lucky to find an excellent mirror for the telescope – and at a bargain price. Two mirrors were finalists for NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope in the late 1980s. The agency selected one – the least-expensive mirror.

After launching the Hubble in 1990, NASA discovered that they had chosen poorly. The mirror in space was ground incorrectly and needed costly repairs in 1993.

The Air Force acquired the mirror for a missile tracking project, but the mission was terminated before a telescope could be built. As the story goes – perhaps apocryphally – the Air Force had simply warehoused the mirror and was considering demolishing it when New Mexico Tech offered to take if off the military’s hands.

Because the mirror was built for space, it is 70 percent lighter than a standard mirror of its size. The original designers of the mirror also needed to design a specialized cell that would work to keep the mirror’s shape from flexing in Earth’s gravity. “The people who created the (at the time) state-of-the-art mirror and support cell say it cost about $8 million to develop and manufacture,” Ryan said. “The market value now is about $2 million … and we got it donated to us.”

All those considerations created challenges and they’ve all been overcome. Now, the sign is out: “Magdalena Ridge Observatory: Open for Business.”

– NMT –