Tech Astrophysicist Spearheads Federal Funding Effort

SOCORRO, N.M. June 10, 2009 – New Mexico Tech astrophysicist Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman is leading the effort to secure federal funding priority for all astronomical interferometers for at least the next 10 years.

Creech-Eakman is the co-author of a discipline-wide paper in the June 2009 edition of Physics Today, which bolsters the interferometry community’s case for increased funding in coming years. She is also the spokesperson for the U.S. Interferometric Consortium, presenting the argument for funding June 9 in Pasadena, Calif.

Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman shows off a model of the telescope mounts that will be used at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer.  Photo by Thomas Guengerich

Astronomers and astrophysicists have voluntarily participated in a formal self-assessment every 10 years known as the “Decadal Process” for the past several decades.

As committee chair and spokesperson, Creech-Eakman represented all interferometers to a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, the organization that prioritizes, approves and blesses the various decadal reports. Once approved, the report is forwarded to Congress and national funding agencies, such as NSF, NASA and DoE  as the Academy’s official scientific priorities for funding.

Creech-Eakman is the project scientist for Tech’s soon-to-be operational Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer, which will eventually include 10 optical telescopes. The facility is scheduled to take delivery of the first telescope in the spring of 2010 and be fully operational with the first six telescopes in 2013.

As an active member of the U.S. Interferometric Consortium, Creech-Eakman was appointed to lead a committee that will generate a detailed report on the needs of the interferometer community, which includes six facilities in the United States.

The paper in Physics Today is not officially related to the decadal review process, but the timing couldn’t be better.
“We won’t deny that we were very lucky in the timing of this publication,” she said. “It wasn’t meant explicitly to fit in with the decadal process. This paper was meant to raise the profile of what’s going on in the interferometry community as scientists consider our priorities within astronomy over the next 10 years.”

For the decadal process, the interferometry working group submitted nine white papers enumerating the discipline’s direction and needs over the next 10 years. The science-wide papers relate to topics in ground-based interferometry, technological advances and astronomy program.

“We’ve been trying to anticipate what the decadal survey people might ask,” Creech-Eakman said. “This is the process that gives astronomers legitimacy in seeking federal funding.”

Creech-Eakman presented the committee’s case to a panel of Academy experts on Tuesday, June 9, in Pasadena. In short, June 2009 is a critical time for optical interferometry funding in the United States.

In addition to promoting the role of interferometry in the future of astronomy, Creech-Eakman presented to the Decadal Program’s prioritization panel a new initiative to make interferometer observatories open to amateur astronomers. The project, titled Milliarcsecond Optical/Infrared Science: Access to Interferometry for the Community, aims to secure  funding to pay for observatory operations time. Known by its acronym MOISAIC, the initiative would provide wider access and help U.S. interferometers stay open, Creech-Eakman said.

“We hope to set up a mechanism to let anyone with basic astronomy skills get access and provide support in training them how to use the facilities and how to reduce and interpret data,” Creech-Eakman said. “This would help grow the community of people who use these facilities for their science. In exchange, we hope to get operational funding to keep our doors open.”

The proposal recommends a mechanism through which the National Science Foundation can fund observatory time that is open to the scientific public. Observatories would issue a call for proposals, then determine in a peer-reviewed fashion who would receive this NSF-funded observatory time.

“We’re not nationalizing our facilities, but we’re trying to open ourselves up in a national sense,” she said. “For a long time, interferometry was considered a niche technique. We think it’s becoming more regular, more common science. It’s becoming a mainstay in astronomical work.”

In Physics Today, she wrote that interferometry is shedding light (pun intended) on many areas of stellar astrophysics that are not readily visible to single-mirror observatories. Interferometry also shows great promise in extragalactic astrophysics as interferometers come online with increasing sensitivity. As just a few examples, interferometric observatories are able to view spots on stars other than the Sun; stars rotating so fast they become oblate and dark at the equator; systems of multiple stars caught in their mutual gravitation field; young stars in the process of creating planetary systems; and giant stars close to the end of their lives.

Interferometric imaging was pioneered in the radio wavelengths at installations like the Very Large Array, which opened in the early 1980s. Optical interferometry has taken longer to blossom because of the technological challenges in combining optical and infrared light from multiple telescopes. For the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, scientists are designing, building and programming an extraordinarily complex beam combining instrument and a series of delay lines in a 200-yard-long building.

“Optical interferometers are complex machines containing many optical elements,” Creech-Eakman and her co-authors wrote in Physics Today. “Instrumentalists are constantly looking for ways to reduce that complexity, increase the number of photons being collected, and examine fainter, more distant targets. Combining many beams using bulk optics requires dozens of optical components, each with a concomitant light loss, over large areas of optical table space.”

The potential for scientific advances through optical interferometry are growing as the technology and instrumentation evolves. However, funding for the arrays is crucial for keeping the science progressing.

The Physics Today article does not mention any interferometer facility by name, but the Magdalena Ridge Observatory is clearly referenced:

“Facilities employing new methods to improve sensitivity, possibly by a factor of 100, are now nearing completion and are expected to see first light within the next two years.” New Mexico Tech scientists are hesitant to say so publicly, but the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer will be the most advanced, highest-resolution optical telescope in the world. When it becomes fully operational with all 10 telescopes – hopefully by 2015 – the facility will produce images 100s of times clearer than the Hubble Space Telescope.

In her USIC white paper, Creech-Eakman wrote that, “The MROI has been designed to deliver a much higher sensitivity through the use of a highly-efficient optical train (mostly in vacuum) and an ambitious error budget for the overall system wavefront errors. Should this be realized, this would be a very significant step in expanding the scientific capabilities of ground-based instruments.”

The MROI’s “highly-efficient optical train” refers to the fact that the telescopes have only three mirrors directing light to the single-pass delay lines. The developers have minimized the reflections – thus preserving more photos and generating high resolution images of fainter targets.
If the National Academy of Sciences blesses the USIC’s  presentation as a top national priority early next year, the world’s next greatest telescope could be open for anyone with a good idea.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich