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New Mexico Tech Contracts with Italian Firm to Design Custom Telescope Domes, Dec. 10, 2008

By Thomas Guengerich MRO domes

SOCORRO, N.M., Dec. 10, 2008 –The milestones are happening regularly for the Magdalena Ridge Observatory at New Mexico Tech. The university on Tuesday, Dec. 2, signed a contract for nearly $1 million with an Italian firm to design and oversee the construction of the first dome.

Right: Artist's conception of MRO domes in their closest formation, called "closed pack array." Graphic courtesy of European Industrial Engineering.

European Industrial Engineering, based in Venice, won a competitive bid to design a 7.5-meter wide enclosure to house the first of 10 telescopes at the Observatory’s state-of-the-art interferometer.

The contract-signing Tuesday culminated a six-month process, including two weeks of negotiations with EIE. Two company representatives spent two days in New Mexico – one day touring the facilities and the Magdalena Ridge and one day of intensive negotiations.

The second day ended with Gianpetro Marchiori and Tech Vice President of Finance Lonnie Marquez signing an agreement for $928,000.

“This is a very significant milestone because we ordered the first telescope earlier this year,” Program Manager Dr. Eric Bakker said. “But we can’t put it on the Ridge without an enclosure.”

Program Director Chuck Cormier said the contract with EIE represents the last major design component for an installation that will be the first of its kind – a true world class astronomical instrument.

Project scientist Dr. Dave Westpfahl has been the MRO’s champion for more than 13 years.

“All that we can do is more forward one day at a time,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing and that, in itself, is success. I started on this project in 1995 and I worked on it for four years with no funding. So my feeling today is that contracting for the enclosures is a wonderful achievement.”

MRO model

Left: Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman explains the finer details of the telescopes being constructed for the Magdalena Ridge Observatory's interferometer, while Dr. Eric Bakker looks on.

Interferometer project scientist Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman said the contract with EIE represents the last major milestone before first light in 2010.

“We still need to build and assemble all the internal pieces,” she said. “As far as contracts, this is very exciting. I’m thrilled. This puts us one step closer to first light, which will be our first major scientific milestone.”

At maximum distance, the telescopes will be spread out over three arms of 58 meters feet, thus simulating a 340-meter wide telescope. Each of the three arms will have nine different piers or foundations for telescopes.

“When this interferometer comes to fruition, we’ll be able to make the best images of astronomical targets at very high angular resolution,” Cormier said.

Cormier said. “The entire system is very sensitive to atmospheric changes, temperature changes and other things that might seem trivial. Those are all challenges in making a scientific instrument perform well.”

The main science missions for the interferometer include star and planet formation, stellar accretion and mass loss and active galactic nuclei.

Cormier said the company presented an innovative design that will require minimal maintenance and is cost-effective.

“This company is very well regarded,” Cormier said. “They are a mechanical engineering shop, but the vast majority of their projects are in the astronomy world. They’re familiar with the technical challenges that are driving our performance.”

EIE is also working with the NRAO to design 25 radioastronomy telescopes for the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile.

The construction of the interferometer is a truly international endeavor. The University of Cambridge in England is providing technical expertise. Optical Surface Technologies of Albuquerque is making the mirrors. A Belgian company is building the telescope mounts. Now, an Italian firm will design the telescope enclosures.

“All of these contracts must come together to produce world-class science,” Cormier said. “We are responsible to bring it all together to ultimately create these astronomical images. We’ll be looking for young stellar objects and galaxies.”

“This project truly has an international flavor,” Creech-Eakman said. “We have about 20 people actively involved at Tech. Cambridge has another eight. When you consider all the external groups, like EIE, we have more than 100 people around the world working to make this project the best optical interferometer in the world.”

Astronomers using the MRO interferometer are looking forward to having the ability to view black holes in the centers of external galaxies.

European Industrial Engineering won the bid over three other bidders, including an American, an Australian and another European company.

The design process will take about a year, followed by a few months of fabrication. Bakker said the fabrication will not be as difficult as the design process and will probably done in New Mexico. The first telescope and mount – along with the 1.4 meter optics and fast-tip tilt system – is scheduled for installation by March 2010. Bakker said EIE presented a unique design with the motor and other moving parts separate from the dome portion of the enclosure.

“The base is fixed and does not rotate, but the dome portion needs to be able to open and close and rotate,” he said. “EIE presented the best design and had the best price.”

Cormier said the enclosures serve several functions and needs: to protect the telescopes from the elements; dissipate the heat fluctuations generated by the electronics; minimize vibrations; and, perhaps the most important aspect, be the right size.

“That’s really driving the design,” Cormier said. “We need the ability to take the telescopes 340 meters apart, but we also want to be able to pack them in tightly. The closer we can get them, the more effective we can be in performing science.”

Each enclosure must contain the telescope and its mount, a dizzying array of electronics and optics and enough room for technicians to adjust and maintain the instrumentations, Cormier said.

Lead technical engineer Rob Selina said each enclosure has to be less than 7.5 meters around because the scientists will require the telescopes to be within that distance of each other in the “closed pack array.”

“The space allocations are critical to us,” Selina said. “As well as the relocation feature. Those are the two aspects that make this challenging.”

Selina said the telescopes and enclosures must be configurable. Facility managers ultimately must be able to lift the whole apparatus and move it along the array, he said.

The custom-made mirrors will be 1.4 meters – 4½ feet – across and more than 6 inches thick. These glass-ceramic mirrors will need to be kept near the same temperature as the night-time atmosphere, Cormier said.

Meanwhile, several teams at New Mexico Tech are working on the custom hardware and proprietary software for the delay lines, beam-combiner and fringe tracker. These elements will combine the light from multiple telescopes and produce images of astronomical phenomena never seen before – not even by Hubble Space Telescope.

Once completed, the Magdalena Ridge Observatory’s interferometer will produce exceptional images for several reasons. First, no other optical interferometer will have 10 telescopes. Second, most other interferometers have up to 25 or 30 secondary mirrors that transfer light to a beam-combining instrument. With each reflection, light is lost and the wavefront is distorted. While other interferometers “see” only 1 to 3 percent of the original light they collect, Tech’s interferometer will retain about 18 percent of the original light to combine for making images.

– NMT –