Apr 042014
NESSI team working hard to get first light on NESSI

NESSI team working hard to get first light on NESSI

Edited 3/5/2014

Four and half years since its initial conception, the New Mexico Exoplanet Spectroscopic Survey Instrument (NESSI), a multi-object near-infrared (NIR) spectrometer achieved first light using the Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) 2.4-meter telescope.

In the past, exoplanet spectroscopy was only possible with space-based telescope. NESSI is one of the first ground-based characterization instruments and is attracting attention from astrophysicists around the world, placing MRO in the forefront of exoplanet research.

NESSI is a spectrometer designed, built, and optimized for probing chemical composition of atmospheres of exoplanets—planets orbiting distant stars, outside of our Solar System.  Using spectroscopy to observe exoplanets’ atmospheres allows astronomers to study the molecular composition of the planet’s atmospheres, making it possible to identify the presence, and quantify the abundance, of oxygen and carbon-bearing molecules, as well as temperature and winds.  NESSI will observe exoplanets in our galaxy, most of which are within 100 light years from our Solar System.

Pollux, a bright start in the Gemini constellation was the first target NESSI achieved first light on.

Pollux, a bright start in the Gemini constellation was the first target NESSI achieved first light on.

During the first night’s observations, NESSI collected light from several targets, including some bright stars and globular clusters. Pollux, a bright start in the Gemini constellation was the first target because it has a good infrared signal for the detector.

“First light is always a big moment for any new instrument. The team is very excited about getting light through the system, and the performance is great,” said Dr. Michelle Creech-Eakman, the Science Principal Investigator and MRO Project Scientist.

Initially conceptualized in 2009, NESSI is funded by New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (NMT) and NASA EPSCoR at New Mexico State University (NMSU). MRO’s PI and NMT Vice President of Research and Economic Development, Van Romero led the efforts to secure the funding.

“The new instrument brings diversity to the observatory’s capability, which is vital in today’s competitive funding environment. But, more importantly, it brings new science to our campus, which means new opportunities for our students,’ said Romero.

NESSI installed on the 2.4-meter telescope

NESSI installed on the 2.4-meter telescope

The optical and mechanical design was completed at MRO with collaborators from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Most of its fabrication was done in Arizona and New Mexico and the instrument was assembled at the MRO optics lab located on the NMT campus.

“Getting first light was a strangely serene experience.  We spent all of this time with the design, fabrication, assembly, and installation – also the prep work for the observations themselves,” said NMT Physics graduate student Heather Bloemhard.

Exoplanets were first suspected to exist as early as the 19th century but the first confirmed discovery did not occur until 1988. Since then hundreds of exoplanets have been uncovered orbiting their host stars and scientists are now moving from the discovery phase to the characterization phase.

The JPL team, led by Dr. Mark Swain initially devised the novel approach used by NESSI, using infrared data from ground-based telescopes to acquire and deduce information about exoplanet atmospheres.

NESSI 3D design drawing.

NESSI 3D design drawing.

NESSI is unique, as its design has been optimized to have very few moving components, which allows for great stability and to have sensitive detectors with which to measure the exoplanet atmospheres.

NESSI is the first purpose-built spectrometer to measure exoplanet transit spectroscopy,” says Creech-Eakman.

Now that NESSI achieved first light, the team plans to continue using the instrument to take spectra on many types of objects, including stars, brown dwarfs, planets, and other galaxies.  It also has imaging modes and the team plans to test these capabilities.

30 nights have been allocated to studying exoplanets. Each target requires ½ of a night to collect full spectra.

“There has been lots of excitement and interest about NESSI from groups of folks interested in measuring exoplanet atmospheres, and so that is our main goal. Other folks will undoubtedly want to try other science, so how much gets done with NESSI will depend on getting on the 2.4-meter telescope,” says Creech-Eakman.

2.4-meter telescope building on top of the Magdalena Ridge.

2.4-meter telescope building on top of the Magdalena Ridge.

The MRO 2.4-meter telescope became operational in late 2007 and is primarily utilized to observe, track, and characterize solar system astronomical targets, artificial Earth satellites, space vehicles, and terrestrial military targets. It is located at 10,600 feet in the Magdalena Mountains of the Cibola National Forest, approximately 30 miles west of Socorro, NM.

MRO was formed in 1996 as a consortium with plans to build and operate a 2.4-meter telescope and a 10-element optical and NIR interferometer (MROI).


KRQE News Report on NESSI


Read more about NESSI

For questions or inquiries please contact: Mary Edwards Tel: (575) 835 – 6431

Jan 192014

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO) has been appropriated $4M under the 2014 Federal Omnibus Appropriations Funding Bill which was signed by President Obama on Saturday, January 18th.

U.S. Senator Tom Udall

U.S. Senator Tom Udall

Both U.S. Senator Tom Udall and U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich praised the Bill and the appropriations to New Mexico, which includes the Magdalena Ridge Observatory where the MRO Interferometer is under construction.

In announcing the appropriations to New Mexico, Senator Udall stated, “Sequestration was incredibly damaging to New Mexico, and would have cost us jobs and scarred our economy had another round of cuts gone into effect in 2014,” Udall said. “I fought hard as a member of the Appropriations Committee to roll back the damaging sequestration cuts this year. With this bill, I’m optimistic that Congress is on the right track, working together and keeping faith with New Mexicans and all Americans.”

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich visiting the New Mexico Tech Campus in February, 2013.

U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich visiting the New Mexico Tech Campus in February, 2013.

Senator Heinrich also welcomed the additional funding to to science and research in New Mexico, noting that “This [Bill] undoes some of the damaging cuts caused by sequestration”.

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer (MROI) is a world class optical array, with 200 times the resolution of the Hubble telescope, and which will be used to conduct scientific research in astronomy, to contribute to Space Situational Awareness (SSA), and to education and outreach in the state of New Mexico.

MRO Program Director Dr. Ifan Payne

MRO Program Director Dr. Ifan Payne

Said Dr. Ifan Payne, MRO Program Director, “I am most grateful to the New Mexico Congressional Delegation for their efforts in securing funding for science and research in New Mexico. The funding for the MROI is an important component to help meet our first scientific milestone of two operational telescopes in the array”.

For questions or inquiries please contact: Mary Edwards Tel: (575) 835 – 6431

Jan 162014
Eileen Ryan staff photo

MRO 2.4-meter Telescope Director Dr. Eileen Ryan

Dr. Eileen Ryan presented a talk at the American Astronomical Society’s 223rd meeting on January 5-9 in Washington D.C. She spoke about the MRO’s 2.4-meter telescope and how it is being used to track and characterize Near-Earth objects. The talk may be viewed on the  AAS Archive Press Conference Webcasts.

Dr. Ryan also addressed an international community (with representatives from ESA, DLR, Russian Academy of Science, IAU, NASA, Canada, etc.) on January 13 in Boston at the Minor Planet Center, Harvard Center for Astrophysics. She summarized the project’s work in the field of detection, characterization, and mitigation of potentially hazardous objects. The meeting was for the “International Asteroid Warning Network” (IAWN), which is an offshoot of one of the agreements at the 2013 United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Nov 032013

MROI Unit Telescope arriving at the EMRTC at New Mexico Tech on November 1, 2013

The first MRO Interferometer (MROI) Unit Telescope (UT) arrived from Belgium at the New Mexico Tech (NMT) campus on Friday November 1st. The long awaited arrival of the telescope, a major milestone for the project, which has been more than 15 years in the making. The crate containing the telescope was opened on Monday, November 4th at the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMRTC) and the telescope will be stored there until it is transported to the Telescope Receiving Facility, part of the MRO visitors center and maintenance facility (VCMF) on the Magdalena Ridge at the end of February, 2014.

The MROI will be a ten-element imaging interferometer operating at visible and near-infrared wavelengths, between 0.6 and 2.4 microns with baselines from 7.8 to 340 meters.

MROI Unit Telescope at AMOS in Belgium

MROI Unit Telescope at AMOS in Belgium

The MROI UT is a movable unit made up of the telescope mount, optics, enclosure and ancillary systems required for routine operation. The telescope mount, designed and constructed by AMOS in Leige, Belgium, is an elevation over elevation design with a fixed output beam implemented using only three mirrors. The telescope will be housed in an enclosure, designed by EIE of Mestre, Italy, features a rigid frame to support the telescope mount during relocation and a unique low profile dome and shutter to allow the telescopes to be placed in very close proximity without obscuring the field of view of an adjacent telescope.

Ancillary systems included within the UT structure are a “fast tip-tilt” system, designed by the University of Cambridge, which corrects for first-order atmospheric distortions, an automated alignment system that aligns the telescope with the delay lines in the beam combining facility, a wide-field finder telescope, and controls and network infrastructure.


Array foundations at the MROI site

Further work will be carried out at the Telescope Receiving Facility section of the VCMF. The Receiving Facility will mimic the foundations of the array, cooling systems, and various other external systems required for the telescope mount to function, including a pared down version of the enclosure. The Receiving Facility will allow the engineers to test the telescope mount to confirm its functions are working properly and help to integrate it with other systems of the MROI. These tests are expected to be complete by the beginning of Summer, 2014.

The technical and scientific goals are to produce model-independent images of faint and complex astronomical targets at resolutions over 100 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope.