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Magdalena Ridge Observatory Records Lunar Impacts for NASA

New Mexico Tech scientists took part in a ground-breaking – or lunar-breaking – project in early October.

Astrophysics professors and students under contract with NASA observed two lunar impacts during the early morning hours of Friday, Oct. 9.

New Mexico Tech scientists used instruments at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory and the Etscorn Campus Observatory to watch two controlled impacts at the southern polar region of the moon. They recorded scientifically notable video of NASA’s Centaur rocket approaching the moon, which was aired on NASA-TV later Friday morning.

“It’s really exciting that we have this on our resume – ground-based spacecraft support,” said Dr. Eileen Ryan, Director of the Observatory’s 2.4-meter telescope. “That’s a frequent need for NASA; they often need back-up from ground-based telescopes. This will be very beneficial for future funding opportunities.”

Tech Vice President of Research Dr. Van Romero said the Observatory did a good job of getting its foot in the door with NASA space research.

Eileen Ryan at the MRO

“This is just a single event that isn’t a big revenue generator in itself,” Romero said. “But it lends us a bit of international visibility. Because of our performance after the mission and NASA using our data, they’ll definitely come back to the MRO for additional work.”

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory is well suited to for this task because the 2.4-meter telescope was designed to track fast-moving objects. Most nights, the instrument tracks near-Earth objects like satellites and meteors.

“We waited for the Centaur rocket to separate from the Shepherding Spacecraft and then we acquired the coordinates for the rocket as it streamed past stars toward impact,” Dr. Eileen Ryan said. “The video shows the rocket as it’s tumbling toward impact and as the rocket catches sunlight, its brightness changes. Besides being a visually compelling image, it carries significant science if we can characterize its rotation rate prior to impact.”

The 2.4-meter telescope was one of the smallest instruments enlisted to observe the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS mission – and definitely the newest.

“We’re one of the smallest telescopes on this project, so we feel like we’re playing with the big boys,” Dr. Eileen Ryan said. “It is really exciting to be a part of this.”

This contract represents another success for the facility, which already has a NASA contract to track near-Earth objects. The Observatory also has recently signed contracts with the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Air Force.

Since becoming operational in September 2008, the Magdalena Ridge Observatory is carving out its astronomical niche as an instrument to study the solar system. Ryan said she is capitalizing on the telescope’s size and its ability to respond quickly to targets of opportunity, such as asteroids, meteors and satellites.

“Most telescopes of our size are looking outside the solar system,” she said. “We really shine when observing solar system objects.”

NASA contracted with New Mexico Tech to use the university’s 2.4-meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory to capture data on the impact. In addition to the 2.4-meter telescope, doctoral student Jed Rembold observed the impacts with two 14-inch telescopes.

“We’re not sure how bright the plumes will be,” Ryan said before the mission. “The brightness depends largely on how much water vapor is in the plume and how big the plume will be.”

After the impact, Ryan said the ground-based telescopes did not immediately detect the plume – or ejecta. The rim of the crater is about 7 to 10 kilometers above the impact site, obscuring the impact in shadow. Ryan said scientists at each observatory will scrutinize their data and look for signs of plume and information about the collision.