Pair keep watch on N.M.'s skies - Albuquerque Journal

Pair keep watch on N.M.’s skies

An object from outside the solar system is moving in mysterious ways, leading some to think it’s artificial.

A decaying Russian satellite is showing signs of crashing down to Earth.

A NASA rocket launches from Spaceport America, about 100 miles away.

Keeping track of those objects are all a part of a night’s work for astronomers Eileen and Bill Ryan, who operate the 2.4-meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory at an elevation of 10,600 feet on top of South Baldy in the Magdalena Mountains.

“We are one of the largest telescopes in NASA’s network,” Eileen Ryan said during a recent Enchanted Skies Star Party. “Every clear night, we’re on sky looking at newly discovered asteroids and comets. There are about 25 to 30 new objects discovered each night.”

A poster on the wall of the facility of the 1998 movie “Armageddon” starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck serves as a humorous reminder of one of the telescope’s missions.

“When objects get discovered, it’s a very short arc,” Bill Ryan added. “So their orbit is very uncertain. The point is, the Earth can be within the window of that immediate arc. That’s actually what we do here. We do the follow-up. We actually try to make that orbit more precise. And 99.9 percent of the time, we’ll eliminate it as a hazardous object.”

Bill Ryan will follow up on anywhere from 18 to 25 objects per night.

The 2.4-meter telescope has been in operation for more than 10 years.

“We are supported 80 percent by NASA’s Near Earth Observations program and 20 percent by the Air Force,” Eileen Ryan said. “Both of those projects have kept with us through the decade. And we’ve had steady funding which supports our operational cost, which comes to about a half million dollars a year.”

“NASA is very happy with the work they are doing,” said Van Romero, vice president for Academic Research and Economic Development at New Mexico Tech, which holds classes at the facility.

The Air Force will alert the MRO if there is a man-made object it wants to keep an eye on. Such was the case with the decaying Russian satellite.

One of the most curious objects the MRO observed was a few months ago.

“This summer, we found an object in the solar system,” Romero said. “When we started looking at its orbit, its orbit wasn’t in the solar system. It was coming from out of the plane of the solar system. So it got real interesting.

“A lot of people were trying to characterize it as the first man-detected object from outside of our solar system,” he said. “There was a short period of time, as the asteroid sort of got drug around by Jupiter’s gravity, it looked like it had reversed its direction and was coming back towards the sun, which would have meant somebody made some conscious decision to do that. There was an internet rumor that this thing was occupied and created a false orbit. Bill and Eileen were able to get some accurate tracks on it. It’s leaving our solar system. It’s probably gone by now.”

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