Dec 022015

(Press Release from New Mexico Tech)

Astronomers at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory recently assisted NASA and SETI track a piece of space junk with the 2.4-meter telescope as it impacted the Earth over the Indian Ocean near Sri Lanka on Friday, Nov. 13. Within hours of that project, the MRO team also tracked an asteroid that passed within the zone of Earth-orbiting communications satellites on November 14.

“We were doing the work as part of a world-wide collaborative team as a test case for future scenarios to deal with hazardous asteroids that may impact the Earth,” said Dr. Eileen Ryan, director of the 2.4-meter telescope. “The team got some neat pictures from the airplane of the debris streaking as it came in.”

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An image from the MRO of a piece of space junk.


The object was WT1190F, and a plane in Abu Dhabi was chartered to get images and data as the debris hit. Dr. Bill Ryan, telescope scientist at the MRO, provided NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab with astrometry to refine the error bars to help determine exactly where the debris would impact. The astrometric data provided by MRO for entry location modeling helped reduce an impossibly large uncertainty to a doable, large uncertainty which was very encouraging.

The space debris had been identified in late October and observers had determined that it would impact the Earth on November 13. Observers on the airplane took video of the space junk as it appeared to burn up. Eileen Ryan said that if any portion of the debris survived re-entry it would be in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Sri Lanka. For more information and images of the incoming debris see: (scroll down to the middle of the page for MRO’s early, critical astrometry contribution).

As observers were tracking the debris, an asteroid was discovered that would pass very close to the Earth (within the man-made satellite zone) the next night (Nov. 14).

The Ryans got data on the object’s spin rate, and took a picture on Nov. 14 of the asteroid in the background with an (unresolved) image streak of a known geosynchronous satellite in the foreground (though safely far enough away this time).

“I was surprised,” Eileen Ryan said. “It was a one-two punch. One cool thing, then another cool thing. The International Astronomical Center in Abu Dhabi together with the United Arab Emirates Space Agency chartered a plane to track the space junk. Then, 20 hours later, we’re seeing an asteroid within the geosynchronous satellite belt. That took Bill and me by surprise.”

Dr. Van Romero, Vice President of Research at Tech, said the positive results on these two back-to-back projects are further proof that the MRO is a top-drawer telescope.

“This facility was designed to be able to do quick response and this is yet another example of how the facility – combined with the people who operate the facility – can respond quickly and do things that challenge the rest of the world’s observatories,” Romero said. “The facility can’t do it alone. You need skilled people who can do the measurements and do it quickly. The combination of the facility, plus Bill and Eileen Ryan, appear to be the best in the world. That’s why NASA, the Air Force and the National Science Foundation are beating a path to their door to take advantage of the capabilities we have at Tech.”

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The fast-tracking telescope captured this image of an asteroid as it approached Earth.


The asteroid – named 2015 VY105 – was first discovered by astronomers at the Catalina Sky Survey in Tucson. Within the hour, the Ryans were using the MRO 2.4-meter telescope to track it further.

“Catalina found it as a dot,” she said. “As a follow-up telescope, we lengthened the arc of the orbit of that dot and figured out how close it was coming to Earth. Bill did a quick orbit calculation and it was getting kind of close, but looked like it was safely not going to hit us. It was a bit unnerving, but it’s a great opportunity. We’re in the middle of a shooting gallery.”

Once it became clear that this asteroid was coming close, the Ryans put out a call to their European colleagues to assist in tracking while it was daylight in New Mexico. Although it was not going to hit the Earth, its close approach was going to provide a great opportunity to study these types of small asteroids that are on a collision course and lead to the events like the airburst over Chelyabinsk, Russia in February of 2013. Most observatories had bad weather, but three stations from Romania, France, and Italy were able to help.

“This is a beautiful demonstration of how – with little warning – we can use worldwide resources on something that could be potentially hazardous,” Eileen Ryan said. “It’s heart-warming to get international cooperation and find people who are willing to work together and do it quickly.”

The asteroid came within 10 percent of the distance between the Earth and the Moon, or within about 18,600 miles (30,000 km) of the Earth. It was traveling at about 17 kilometers/second in its orbit, and was 5 to 10 meters in diameter. The Ryans were able to observe it tumbling while spinning once every two minutes. Analysis of the collected spectral data will help determine the asteroid’s composition.

Eileen Ryan said the asteroid was so close and so bright that even smaller telescopes could track its path. Two students are helping make sense of the data. Heidi Love, who recently got her master’s degree, is assisting in understanding the fundamentals of how asteroids break up, along with Travis Crockett, a senior in physics, who is analyzing man-made satellite observations. Crockett and Bill Ryan plan more space debris monitoring in the wake of that incident.

Romero said, “This is an extraordinary opportunity for students to learn the techniques, but to also participate in cutting-edge research – real-time, right-now science.”


Nov 052015

The MRO 2.4-Meter Telescope will receive funding from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in early 2016 to monitor the launch and re-entry of commercial space vehicles from Spaceport America, a facility north of Las Cruces, New Mexico. MRO investigators will record and monitor suborbital space vehicles, stratospheric balloons, and other assets. The Principle Investigator and Co-Principle Investigator of the grant, Drs. Eileen and William Ryan, have extensive experience with tracking fast-moving natural and man-made objects in orbit.

An undergraduate student from New Mexico Tech’s Mechanical Engineering Department will assist with software development for closed-loop tracking of fast terrestrial targets with the MRO 2.4-Meter Telescope. As observations are acquired, the student will analyze performance data to supplement or validate safety data collected from other sources.

Operational funding for the MRO 2.4-Meter Telescope is dependent on outside grants and contracts. The monies from the FAA will help keep the Observatory financially viable. Currently, 80% of operations funding comes from NASA grants to study Near-Earth asteroids and comets, national security work involving the Air Force, and internal New Mexico Tech research projects. Over 100 students per year utilize the 2.4-meter observatory to supplement their coursework and acquire hands-on experience in exciting ongoing initiatives.

Oct 202015

Exciting news from Magdalena Ridge Observatory and New Mexico Tech: “New Mexico Tech signed a five-year, $25 million cooperative agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory to support continued development of the interferometer at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. Dr. Van Romero, vice president of research at Tech, said the new funding will allow Tech to complete three telescopes, mounts and enclosures on the mountaintop facility.” Read more here.

MRO Interferometer

Anatomy of the MRO Interferometer [Popular Mechanics, 2009]

Oct 152015

In late September and early October, Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman spoke to members of the Las Cruces Astronomical Society at Doña Ana Community College and a colloquium at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona about exoplanetary astronomy and her work with the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument (NESSI). NESSI is a highly sensitive ground-based instrument mounted on the MRO 2.4-meter Optical Telescope that studies the atmospheres of distant planets. The ultimate goal of Creech-Eakman’s research is to discover planets with biosignatures like oxygen, water vapor, and methane in their atmospheres, all signs of habitability. While in Flagstaff, Dr. Creech-Eakman also worked with Dr. Gerard van Belle and Dr. Alma Ruiz Velasco on data retrieved by Palomar Testbed Interferometer (PTI). Three papers will be submitted using this data next year.

The orange supergiant star Pollux in the northern constellation of Gemini was one of the first stars observed by NESSI. Image Credit: MRO

The orange supergiant star was one of the first stars observed by NESSI. Image Credit: MRO


Oct 082015

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer (MROI) will be featured in the American Astronomical Society (AAS) 2016 Wall Calendar. Thanks to the efforts of aerial photographer Tyson Eakman, MROI Project Scientist Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman, and MROI Senior Opto-Mechanical Engineer Andres Olivares, a spectacular image of the MROI will be seen by all members of the Society. The AAS Wall Calendar is provided to its members free of charge and highlights “important astronomical events month by month.”

Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MROI)