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Scanning the heavens

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

MAGDALENA MOUNTAINS – Up here on South Baldy peak, 30 driving miles west and south of Socorro and 10,600 feet above sea level, you feel as if you could see North Carolina if you just looked east and squinted.

The truth is that from here, you can see into the dark corners of space, because this is the home of New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory. The observatory’s 2.4-meter (8-foot-diameter) telescope once tracked a tool belt dropped by an astronaut during a space walk.

“It makes little things bigger and dim things brighter,” said Eileen Ryan, director of the 2.4-meter telescope. “And it moves (rotates) 10 times faster than most telescopes because we are tracking things more like rockets than things like stars and planets.”

Through a grant with NASA, the telescope keeps track of potentially perilous Near-Earth Objects, large asteroids that might be on a collision course with Earth.

“We also work with the Air Force to provide national security,” Ryan said. “We track objects that have been launched from the Earth. What country does that belong to? Is it behaving itself? Unfortunately, not all countries today are friendly and not all objects behave themselves.”

MRO, located on 1,000 acres here in the Magdalena Mountains, is built and operated by New Mexico Tech, the university in Socorro. It consists of two facilities, the 2.4-meter telescope and the MRO Interferometer, which is under construction and will eventually employ 10 1.4-meter (4.5 foot-diameter) telescopes.

The 2.4 meter telescope, however, made its debut in 2006 and started routine operations in the summer of 2008.

Hanging on the kitchen wall of the 2.4-meter telescope complex is a poster for “Armageddon,” the 1998 film – starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler – about an asteroid hurtling toward a catastrophic crash with Earth.

“When I was a kid, I was influenced by science fiction movies,” Ryan said. “I wanted to be an astronaut, and I wanted to save the world from extraterrestrial threats.”

New Mexico Tech intern Jacob Schirer, left, and research scientist William Ryan work with the 2.4-meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory on South Baldy peak, southwest of Socorro. The telescope tracks asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth, as well as rockets, missiles and satellites. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

New Mexico Tech intern Jacob Schirer, left, and research scientist William Ryan work with the 2.4-meter telescope at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory on South Baldy peak, southwest of Socorro. The telescope tracks asteroids that might pose a threat to Earth, as well as rockets, missiles and satellites. (Dean Hanson/Journal)

She and her husband, William Ryan, research scientist for the 2.4-meter telescope, have garnered tracking and characterization data on thousands of Near-Earth Objects, including a few that have come closer to Earth than the moon. They determine the physical properties of asteroids that could one day – in a worst-case scenario – be selected for manned or unmanned spacecraft targets to keep them from slamming into Earth. Just like in “Armageddon.”

Among the more intriguing projects the 2.4-meter staff worked on was the observation of Apophis, a 300-meter asteroid, that will come within 20,000 miles of the Earth in 2029 and 2036. Information collected by the Magdalena Ridge telescope helped NASA scientists determine that Apophis will not smash into the Earth. Bruce Willis can relax.

In 2015, New Mexico Tech was awarded a $25 million contract to help the Air Force keep tabs on man-made satellites that could – intentionally or unintentionally – jeopardize satellites launched by the United States. The MRO telescope, one of three originally intended for the Hubble Space Telescope, is capable of collecting the kind of detail that can identify the origins of satellites.

“I had no idea that white paint from Canada is different than white paint from France,” Eileen Ryan said.

The location on South Baldy is about as ideal as it gets for looking into space, because of the altitude, the low humidity and the sparse population which translates into next-to-no light pollution. Still, there are challenges.

“We can’t work in winds of more than 50 mph, and we can’t operate if it is raining or snowing,” Eileen Ryan said.

And then there’s technical difficulties and smoke, which can damage the telescope’s electronics. Operations were shut down for a month by the North Fire, which lightning ignited on May 21 southwest of Magdalena.

But there is an average of 200 clear nights a year here, and the Ryans are at the observatory most of those nights.

“To save the world, you always have to be on the alert,” she said.

 

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