by Public Information Office
Right: Time-lapse image of Magdalena Ridge Observatory, showing star trails.
SOCORRO, N.M., April 16, 2008 – New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) has been awarded $825,000 over a three-year period by NASA’s Planetary Astronomy-Near Earth Object Program to track and characterize potentially hazardous near-Earth objects. These are objects, such as asteroids and comets, which could potentially collide with Earth.
According to Dr. Eileen Ryan, principal investigator of the grant and a project manager and scientist at MRO, “This is the first major operational funding for the MRO 2.4-meter project. One-third of the telescope’s observing time will be dedicated to searching for near-Earth objects.”
The focus of the NASA near-Earth network is to determine the orbital positions of objects on a possible collision course with the Earth. MRO will work with the agency’s Spaceguard Survey Telescopes, and will also characterize the basic properties of the objects it tracks.
MRO, located at over 10,600 ft. in the Magdalena Mountains of southwestern New Mexico, is equipped with a 2.4-meter diameter telescope especially designed to track fast-moving objects. The telescope saw its first light on October 31, 2006, and has since been in its testing, integration, and commissioning phase.
Left: Drs. Bill and Eileen Ryan. Photo by Polo C' de Baca.
“We expect to do astrometric follow-up, determining the orbits of at least 50 objects per month. This will result in data for about 500 near-Earth objects per year, for each of the three years of this initial effort,” said Ryan.
Ryan added that additional important studies will characterize the sizes, rotation rates, composition, and internal structures and strengths of near-Earth asteroids. Understanding such information can be important in deciding how to deal with a potentially dangerous object.
Co-investigator of the grant proposal is Dr. Bill Ryan, who is not only the telescope scientist for the project, but is also Eileen Ryan’s husband. The Ryans were notified of their successful grant funding in late March, but they had already done related work on the project.
Right: Detection (see red circle) of potential Mars impacting asteroid 2007 WD5 (visual magnitude ~24). The image is composed of 42 stacked 2 minute exposures taken over a 1.5 hour period.
Last December, while the grant from MRO was still under review, NASA personnel contacted the Ryans to ask for MRO’s assistance in identifying an object thought to be on a collision course with Mars. The object was too faint to be seen in telescopes that were already in their network. Information obtained by MRO led NASA to determine that such an impact was improbable.
“This was a dramatic way to showcase the capabilities of the MRO 2.4-meter telescope,” said Eileen Ryan.
Eileen and Bill Ryan joined New Mexico Tech in 2002, when the MRO project was in its infancy, coming from New Mexico Highlands University.
The next phase of MRO’s development is an optical and infrared interferometer, which should be able to resolve objects with 100 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope. New Mexico Tech’s partners in MRO are the University of Cambridge Cavendish Laboratory and the Naval Research Laboratory. More information on MRO is available at http://www.mro.nmt.edu/.
Retiring U.S. Sen. Pete V. Domenici lent his support to the development of MRO, which was critical in securing Congressional funding. The late U.S. Rep. Joseph R. Skeen was another strong supporter of the sciences and of New Mexico Tech.
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