Monday, October 5, 2015

Studying the Stars from New Mexico

the 2.4-meter telescope 
The Magdalena Ridge Observatory(MRO) sits on South Baldy Ridge in the Magdalena Mountains, about 30 miles west of Socorro in central New Mexico and 10,600 feet above sea level. At first glance, it seems an unlikely location, but the high-altitude, remote site is perfect for astronomy.

The Observatory involves two facilities. A 2.4-meter-diameter telescope began operations in 2008. It is “one of the largest telescopes in the world that is used primarily to study objects within our Solar System,” according to Director and Astronomer Eileen Ryan in a 2010 interview. “These include asteroids, comets, satellites (both naturally occurring and man-made), and planets. About seventy percent of our current research efforts are directed toward studying asteroids and comets that could impact the Earth sometime in the future – these are called ‘potentially hazardous objects.’”

The scope can move up to 10 times faster than a normal astronomical telescope, and has six ports to mount instruments. A mirror can swing 360 degrees and switch to a different instrument in under 30 seconds, giving it an unprecedented ability to track something unexpected in the sky. They do research for the Air Force because, Lead Maintenance Technician Craig Wallace-Keck said, “It’s one of the very few existing telescopes of this caliber, this size, that has tracking capabilities so we can monitor missile launches.”

The interferometer under construction
10 Telescopes Combined

The second MRO facility, an array of optical/infrared telescopes called an interferometer, is under construction. This array will be similar to the Very Large Array (VLA), a group of 27 radio antennas on the Plains of San Agustin in western New Mexico. However, the MROI works in visible light and infrared wavelengths, while the VLA works in radio waves. The interferometer will include 10 small telescopes, which can be placed up to 340 meters apart. By combining the light from each of those, it acts like a telescope 340 meters across and will make detailed images of astronomical objects – about 100 to 300 times the resolution of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Other interferometers can get very detailed images of small, bright things. Hubble can look at large, faint things. The MRO interferometer can look at things smaller than the Hubble and fainter than other interferometers can image. They’ll be able to see the centers of galaxies and places where new stars are forming.

Scientists using the MROI will try to better understand black holes, how planets are formed, and how stars form, function, and die. Project Scientist Michelle Creech-Eakman noted that “Much of what we know about stars, even our own star the Sun, is based on models and theories that are sometimes more than one hundred years old.” Now scientists are discovering planets around other stars and considering the possibility of life elsewhere in the galaxy. The MROI will teach us more about stars and planets, and ultimately our place in the universe. Like the 2.4-meter telescope, the MROI can also help defend our planet and our country, by studying asteroids in our solar system, and perhaps imaging satellites.

More research questions will arise as scientists fully understand the capabilities of the MROI. Different groups will rent the facility, helping pay operational costs. The community should benefit in both jobs and tourism, including visiting scientists.

There’s a lot going on up on that remote mountaintop. “Astronomy explores and tries to explain the universe around us,” Director and Astronomer Eileen Ryan adds. “By studying the Solar System we learn more about how the Earth formed, how it may change in the future, and about what outside factors (i.e., asteroid impacts like the one that killed the dinosaurs) can influence it. The MRO facility [also] contributes positively to military interests that improve national security, and it is active in educational enhancement within New Mexico.”

The average person may have a hard time following the advanced science happening at MRO, but the magic of the stars can touch us all. “We are all made of star dust,” Creech-Eakman says. “All the material in our bodies was manufactured inside of a star.”

Hikers get a great view from the ridge
Public tours aren’t available yet, but visitors are welcome on the forest land around the MRO site. In order to transport materials, the MRO team reconstructed forest road 235 from Water Canyon to the ridge. The road is now kept open year-round with snow removal and repairs, providing forest access to hunters and hikers.

The MRO also co-hosts an annual Enchanted Skies Star Party, which includes a night of observing at the MRO site. This year’s event is October 14-17.

A version of this article was first published in the enchantment magazine by NMRECA.

Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance involving outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. The Mad Monk’s Treasure follows the hunt for a long-lost treasure in the New Mexico desert. To learn more about her latest work, visit or her Amazon page. Sign up for Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.

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