SOCORRO, N.M., June 10, 2003 -- New Mexico Tech and the national seismology consortium, IRIS, which supports the university's PASSCAL Instrument Center, have been given the go-ahead to proceed with plans to develop EarthScope, a continent-spanning geophysics research observatory that will use thousands of ultra-sensitive seismometers to study the deep Earth.

The EarthScope observatory is a cutting-edge science and research program of unprecedented scale that is designed to address fundamental questions about the Earth's interior.

At a May 22 meeting, the National Science Board, the governing board of the National Science Foundation, approved an operating proposal for EarthScope, which was co-written by IRIS, the UNAVCO geodetic consortium, and Stanford University.

As an IRIS contributor to the proposal, New Mexico Tech, along with IRIS, also was given the go-ahead to manage key aspects of the "USArray," one of the four components of the EarthScope project.

EarthScope has received bipartisan Congressional support, notably from New Mexico Senators Pete Domenici and Jeff Bingaman.

The USArray component utilizes recent developments in sensor, recording, and telecommunications technology -- including a recently funded instrumentation appropriation spearheaded by Senator Domenici.

USArray will spend the next decade covering the contiguous United States and Alaska with a moving 600-by-600-mile array of small, automatic earthquake recording stations, steadily migrating west to east.

Using techniques similar to CAT scan technology, data from these ultra-sensitive instruments will be applied to reveal the detailed geologic history and internal structure of the North American continent, particularly its underlying mantle, as well as the Earth's core.

"The EarthScope observatory is an array of geophysical instruments for imaging the deep interior of our planet and unraveling its history and ongoing geologic processes using seismic waves," says Rick Aster, professor of geophysics at New Mexico Tech and principal investigator at the IRIS/PASSCAL Instrument Center and the newly approved USArray Operations Facility.

"It is like a telescope of unprecedented power designed to peer into the Earth," Aster explains.

To accommodate EarthScope operations and other research activities, New Mexico Tech has begun planning for a new 40-office and laboratory complex in the university's Tech Research Park, adjacent to the IRIS/PASSCAL Instrument Center. Construction on the new research facility is scheduled to begin this coming fall.

"Since New Mexico Tech is hosting the primary operations of USArray and is expanding its IRIS/PASSCAL Instrument Center, the immediate impacts to the university and surrounding area will include an additional $2 million in annual payroll, the creation of 14 new professional-level jobs, and new on-campus research opportunities and resources for both scientists and students, as well as significantly heightened national and international recognition for the university and the State of New Mexico," says Tech President Daniel H. López.

"It is particularly noteworthy that even though 100 of the U.S. research universities that make up the IRIS consortium have been involved with planning for EarthScope, only two of the consortium members will actually have lead roles proposed in EarthScope's operations," López adds, "and they are Stanford University and New Mexico Tech."

In addition to the New Mexico Tech-based USArray, EarthScope's other components are: the San Andreas Fault Observatory, a deep observation hole drilled into the San Andreas fault; the Plate Boundary Observatory, a network of permanent and portable GPS receivers and strain meters deployed along the western coast of North America; and Interferometric Synthetic Aperture Radar, which employs a satellite capable of providing spatially continuous strain measurements over wide geographic areas.

"I anticipate that the geophysics program at New Mexico Tech will become deeply involved with the scientific analysis of data from USArray and other components of EarthScope, and in national education and outreach efforts that will stem from this momentous Earth-science project," Aster says.