Magdalena Ridge Observatory Growing Its Customers Base

SOCORRO, N.M. Sept. 24, 2009 – The Magdalena Ridge Observatory has been operational for less than 12 months, but the 2.4 meter telescope already has developed a strong portfolio of customers and partners.

Observatory scientists and engineers recently attended the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference, or AMOS Conference, where they presented details about the Tech facility in several poster presentations and sessions.

Dr. Eileen Ryan, Director of the 2.4 meter Telescope, said the Observatory inked two new customers as a result of the conference. She said the telescope has precious few nights available for new customers after signing contracts with the U.S. Air Force and the National Science Foundation, coupled with an existing contract with NASA.

The 2.4 meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. New Mexico Tech photo

“I’m still in shock that we are getting so many customers so quickly,” Ryan said. “It’s been amazing. We’ve more than exceeded our expectations from our business plan for the Observatory.”

The 2.4-meter telescope was built in two years and installed at the site in October 2006. Five months later in March 2007 while the telescope was still in its commissioning phase, Observatory scientists published their first paper based on their work with the telescope – a study of Pluto’s atmosphere.

Vice President of Research Dr. Van Romero said the Observatory is filling an important niche in the astronomy world – providing an affordable service for solar system observing.

Romero said the AMOS Conference is an important event for New Mexico Tech to promote the telescope and network with other scientists, engineers and technicians.

“The AMOS conference is the Air Force’s public meeting on space situational awareness,” Romero said. “The Air Force and related groups will be investing heavily in research in coming years in the study of objects in orbit – manmade and natural objects.”

Romero gave a session about educating the next generation of space scientists and engineers. He teaches an introductory Explosive Engineering class that requires students to devise a plan to protect the Earth from a killer asteroid. The students use the 2.4-meter telescope to find and track asteroids. Romero then teaches them how to plan for an explosives strike to destroy an asteroid.

“We’re educating the next generation of the workforce for space situational awareness,” he said.

The 2.4 meter telescope

The Air Force Academy offers a similar class, which demonstrates that this sort of education is not whimsical or fictional, but truly addresses a potential threat.

Telescope scientist Dr. Bill Ryan explains how the 2.4 meter facility operates to a middle school student during a recent open house. Photo by Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

Ryan secured the first contract from NASA in May 2008 for $825,000 over three years to observe and track recently discovered near-Earth asteroids.

Her new NSF grant is for more of the same work, with a focus on physical characterization of near-Earth asteroids. The new grant totals $287,379 over three years beginning in October 2009.

According to the National Science Foundation website, the prime motivation for Ryan’s new project is the lack of knowledge of the physical properties of the very smallest near-Earth asteroids now being discovered. By examining the rotational periods of these asteroids, scientists can deduce an asteroid’s composition, its history of collisions and other vital information.

Dr. Bill Ryan, telescope scientists for the 2.4-meter facility, is a co-investigator on the NASA and NSF grants. At the AMOS conference he presented his NASA-funded research , which centers on the study of rotational properties of asteroids. One exciting result was that he derived a 57-second rotation period for near-Earth asteroid 2009 BF2, which is the second fastest natural rotator found in our solar system. The fastest spinning asteroid is currently 2008 HJ with a period of 42.7 seconds.

“I was disappointed that we didn’t find the newest fastest rotator, but I’m excited to keep trying each time I’m at the telescope and taking characterization data,” Bill Ryan said.

 Dr. Eileen Ryan, director of the 2.4-meter telescope, in the control room at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory.

With the NSF grant, the Ryans will examine and characterize 15 to 20 small asteroids. This project will help ascertain the potential threat posed by these objects. The project will also incorporate instruction for Master’s of Science Teaching students.

Eileen Ryan taught an MST class this past summer titled “Hazardous Asteroids,” during which the students gathered data using the 2.4-meter telescope.

The Air Force is focusing its efforts at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory on satellites. Via Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, the agency is funding $90,000 of observation time for the Ryan’s to track and characterize manmade objects in low Earth orbit. Eileen Ryan is in negotiations with another Air Force unit on a similar contract.

“Our main focus is to better characterize manmade objects in low-Earth orbit,” Ryan said. “The military objective is to more quickly and definitively identify a satellite’s signature. Whose is it? Is it hostile? How is it maneuvering?

“This technology is not as robust as it should be. The Air Force will be working with us and other facilities to more quickly identify these objects.”

Ryan said support from the NSF, NASA and the Air Force demonstrates that the business plan and science mission of the Observatory were well-conceived.

“Our initial idea was that this sort of telescope was needed to look at objects in our solar system,” Ryan said. “The National Science Foundation found our facility unique enough and found our rates are reasonable enough to pay for time and research labor.”

Eric Bakker, program manager for the interferometer, displays a model of a 1.4-meter telescope currently under construction in Belgium for the MROI. Photo by Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech

All the funded projects provide research opportunities for both individual students and classes at New Mexico Tech.

Romero said the interferometer, which will eventually include ten 1.4-meter optical telescopes, will also play an important role in space situational awareness.

Eric Bakker, the interferometer project manager, prepared a poster detailing his simulations of using the interferometer to look at geostationary satellites.

Satellites in low-Earth orbit – typically imaging devices – circle the planet at a height of about 1,000 miles. Geostationary satellites – typically telecommunications devices – orbit at a distance of up to 225,000 miles and can be up to 30 meters long.

“Traditional telescopes can only look at low-Earth orbit,” Bakker said. “You need a bigger dish or a bigger telescope to look at satellites that are farther away.”

Using software developed at the University of Cambridge, Bakker’s simulations show that the interferometer will be effective at tracking and identifying geostationary satellites. The interferometer will be capable of seeing details of 1 meter at that distance, Bakker said.

“The interferometer will be able to resolve geostationary satellites,” he said. “You will be able to see the solar panels and radio dishes if you do it properly.”

The multi-telescope installation will be capable focusing on satellites and on objects much farther away.

“The interferometer can look at a black hole or a star in a distant galaxy for 10 minutes, then look at satellites 10 minutes later,” he said.

Program director for the MRO Chuck Cormier presented an information session about the soon-to-be-operational Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer. 

“The whole idea is to market our facility,” Cormier said. “These folks are knowledgeable and interested in results. We need to let them know what we’re doing. We’re making inroads and that’s the key.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech