New Mexico Tech has been awarded a $25 million contract to help the U.S. Air Force keep track of man-made satellites in orbit around the earth.
New Mexico Tech President Dan Lopez said the contract was signed Tuesday, and will help the school in its effort to upgrade the facility at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory.
“The work for the contract will be done in phases,” Lopez said. “It will probably be done over five years in equal $5 million amounts.”
The contract will help with the installation of three 1.4-meter interferometer telescopes at the observatory. MRO currently has a 2.4 telescope on site that began operation in 2008.
The telescopes would help identify threats to American satellites from satellites from other countries in orbit, which New Mexico Tech Vice President of Research and Economic Development Van Romero said was increasing.
“One of the roles of the Air Force is to maintain space situational awareness,” Romero said. “The military uses its presence to maintain the U.S. advantage in space. There used to not be much of a threat, but there are more and more satellites in orbit.”
Romero said there were countries that are launching satellites to interfere with American satellites, and the telescopes at the MRO would help identify them.
“It would also help us identify objects from friendly countries that might also be a problem,” Romero said.
The addition of the telescopes will also boost the scientific research at the MRO.
Lopez said the use of multiple smaller telescopes would together function as a larger one, which would allow MRO researchers to focus in more detail not only on the objects orbiting the earth, but also objects in deep space. New Mexico Tech already has contracts with NASA and the Air Force for other work at the MRO, which also includes tracking the paths of asteroids and the university’s own research.
“Having three telescopes would allow us to do good work,” Lopez said. “Having a fourth would allow us to do quality science.”
Romero said funding from the Air Force contract would get the MRO “beyond three telescopes up on the ridge.”
New Mexico Tech officials hope to add as many as 10 telescopes but right now will concentrate on receiving enough funding for a fourth. They plan to seek the funding from the state.
“The governor’s office is going to have to do some heavy lifting,” Romero told the New Mexico Tech Board of Regents on Monday. “So will members of the Legislature.”
He said New Mexico Tech would need between $5 million and $8 million in funding for the fourth telescope. Romero said the funding could be obtained over time, but it would be more efficient to have the funding sooner rather than later. He and Lopez said additional funding may also be sought from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA and the National Space Foundation.
New Mexico Tech officials were confident in landing the Air Force contract based on the work already being performed at the MRO and the school’s partnership with Cambridge University.
“I think it was obvious we had the most outstanding bid,” Lopez said.