Thursday, January 7, 2010

Magdalena Ridge Observatory To Receive $4 Million For Expansion

By John Larson

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory, an arm of New Mexico Tech, is getting $4 million to continue the expansion of the nine telescope interferometer.
The existing facility is currently being used to support the Department of Defense in applications including sensor development and testing, space weather monitoring and the rapid tracking of Low-Earth Orbit objects and debris.
The newly acquired allocation will enable the facility to carry out the Smart Instrument Development project, that will make it a test bed for numerous astronomical and DOD projects, and will enhance the capabilities of the existing observatory, particularly in the area of Space Situational Awareness.
This project will result in the most comprehensive images of astronomical and man-made objects yet available.

“At 10,600 feet on South Baldy, this is the fourth highest observatory in the world,” Eileen Ryan, the 2.4 Meter Telescope Director, said in a 2009 interview.
“One of our missions at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory is to track the orbits of near earth objects,” Ryan said.
The chance of an asteroid or large meteor striking a populated area is small, but not implausible, Ryan said. “MRO scientists and astronomers, working with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA’s Spaceguard program, have developed a computer model to predict where and when a possible catastrophic collision would occur.
“There are five ‘discovery’ telescopes in the western hemisphere whose job it is to scan the night sky to discover and catalogue that large objects that could hit the earth,” Ryan said. “They operate every clear night and have wide field of view. When they spot an object moving in the night sky that would be asteroids or comets.”
Once the discovery telescopes find an object, “we do additional work to ascertain its orbit.”
Astronomers at the MRO routinely work with scientists at other institutions on outer space observations.
In 2007, the MRO partnered with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to observe Pluto as it passed in front of a fifteenth magnitude star in the constellation Sagittarius, as part of research into the dwarf planet’s atmosphere.
The telescope is also used to track missiles launched at White Sands Missile Range.
Also in the bill is $3.2 million earmarked for New Mexico Tech’s Playas Training and Research Center. The funding would establish Playas Training and Research Center as a Joint National Training and Experimentation Site for the National Guard Bureau. The Bureau will use the town for training areas of joint operations between services as well as intergovernmental agencies, irregular warfare, new and emerging missions, emergency management and civil affairs and peacekeeping missions, a press release said.
The $7.2 million Tech is getting is part of a $45 million defense spending bill passed by Congress. Both New Mexico senators voted to approve the measure.
“This legislation provides a much-deserved 3.4 percent pay increase for our men and women in uniform, and supports very important defense-related projects based in our state,” Senator Jeff Bingaman said.

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