Astronomy Workshop Features Global Experts in Interferometry

SOCORRO, N.M. March 21, 2011 – New Mexico Tech is hosting the first-of-its-kind workshop that focuses on the science of optical interferometry in late March.

About 80 astronomers, including the top minds in the field, are registered for the workshop March 28 to 31 that will feature 20 lecturers and about 30 poster presentations about interferometry.

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The Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer will eventually be one of a handful of such facilities available to astronomers. The MRO is hosting a four-day workshop on interferometry next week, March 28-31.
Michelle Creech-Eakman, science director for the MRO-Interferometer, during a tour of the facility in 2010. She is one of the main hosts of the event.

The growing discipline of optical interferometry is the science of combining images from multiple optical telescopes to mimic a much larger telescope. Scientists have used radio interferometers, such as the Very Large Array, for decades using a slightly different technique. The discipline of optical interferometry is about 30 years behind radio interferometry – today only seven facilities operate in the world. The Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer would be the eighth such observatory, set to have first fringes in 2012. New Mexico Tech is the lead institute for the MRO and is receiving technical and design support from partners at the University of Cambridge.

The concept was first proposed more than 100 years ago, but only in the past 30 years has the technology caught up with the theories. The main trick is to combine the beams in real time as they are collected at multiple telescopes, thus creating a coherent and reliable image.

The challenge in optical interferometry is based on the speed of light and the small length of light wavelengths.

“In all interferometers, the precision with which you build, design and install equipment is at the wavelength scale,” said Dr. Chris Haniff, a Cambridge scientists working on the MROI. “Radio waves are at the macro scale – meters, centimeters or perhaps millimeters. Light waves are 100,000 times smaller, so everything has to be done 100,000 times more carefully.”

Conference organizer Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman is the science director for the MRO Interferometer. She is looking forward to having dozens of experts in Socorro to discuss science for several days.

“It’s unique to be at a place like New Mexico Tech and have scientists of this caliber coming here,” she said. “We’re a campus of 2,000 people and we’re helping frame the discussion in interferometry.”

Astrophysics or optics conferences typically devote portions of the program to interferometry, but those conferences often focus on hardware, Creech-Eakman said. The conference organizers selected speakers and posters that predominantly focus on the science.

The discipline first appeared as an important focus in astrophysics in the National Academy of Sciences Astrophysics Decadal Survey report in 1990.

“The big push came in the 1990s and 2000 decades to support interferometry,” Creech-Eakman said. “But development was slower than the community had hoped. Now we’re coming of age and we have exciting science on a regular basis from interferometers. Unfortunately, there’s less money to support the discipline right now.”

The speakers come from all over the world, as do the registrants. Countries represented include Germany, England, France, Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Poland and Australia. Universities represented include Harvard, Michigan, Wisconsin, Embry-Riddle, Cal-Berkeley, Georgia State and many others. Other participants represent the companies that specialize in building interferometer components.

Each session is devoted to a different sub-segment of interferometry, starting with the “Fundamentals of Stellar Parameters.” The second and third days are devoted to four topics: Stellar Structure and Evolution, Evolved Stars and Stellar Imaging, Extrasolar Planets and Black Holes. The final day is devoted to New Challenges in Interferometry.

Many of the staff scientists and graduate students at Tech focus their work on instrumentation. Dr. Colby Jurgenson leads the hardware team at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory’s Interferometer. He said he’s looking forward to learning about how other installations are being used for science and seeing the outlook for astrophysics research at the MRO.

“We seem to be able to attract some big names in the field, so there’s definitely interest in what we’re doing here,” he said. “It means a lot to Tech to have this conference here. We’re making the community aware of what we’re doing and what we’re capable of doing.”

Doctoral student Tyler McCracken said he’s interested in the presentations that relate to new imaging methods. “It’s exciting to see what we’ll be able to do with the MRO and how it can contribute to all these topics.”

In addition to dynamic speakers, the workshop will also offer participants tours of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory.

A handful of New Mexico Tech graduate students and MRO researchers are taking part in the workshop as well. The conference has a daily fee for local people who are interested in attending, but cannot attend all four days.

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech