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)


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