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National Science Foundation funds NMSU telescope upgrade

In the competitive world of astronomy, big telescopes seem to grab most of the headlines - and a lot of the funding, too. But smaller instruments, like New Mexico State University's 1-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory, do crucial work their bigger siblings can't.

New Mexico State University astronomer Tom Harrison checks on NMSU's 1-meter telescope at Apache Point Observatory. Harrison and NMSU colleague Jon Holtzman are heading up a project to upgrade the telescope, using a $500,000 grant from the National Scienc

The National Science Foundation recognizes this and recently awarded a three-year, $500,000 grant to the university to refurbish and upgrade its 1-meter telescope. The souped-up result will have unmatched capabilities when it comes to high-speed photometry, said Tom Harrison, observatory research specialist with the NMSU Department of Astronomy, and it will be improved in other ways as well.

The grant is through the NSF's Program for Research and Education with Small Telescopes (PREST), which is designed to fill a gap caused by the trend toward telescopes with mirrors larger than 8 meters. The largest optical telescopes in the world are the two 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii, but much bigger ones are being planned - including the aptly named OverWhelmingly Large (OWL) 100-meter telescope being developed by the European Southern Observatory.

"There has been a huge impetus to build big telescopes and that has meant most of the smaller telescopes have not been supported well," Harrison said. "So NSF has come up with this money to refurbish our 1-meter telescope, and in return we will give away up to 20 percent of our time on the telescope so that other astronomers can use it."

The NMSU telescope operates robotically, so observations by scientists and students at other institutions can be done remotely.

Large telescopes have tremendous light-gathering capability, which translates to high resolution and the ability to observe distant, faint objects. But competition for time at the big observatories is intense. The same is true for mid-range telescopes like the 3.5-meter Astrophysical Research Consortium telescope that NMSU shares with other consortium institutions at Apache Point Observatory, located in the Sacramento Mountains near Cloudcroft.

"The main advantage small telescopes have is that you can do programs on them you cannot do on big telescopes, such as monitoring long-term behavior," Harrison said. "You only get a few nights here and there on a big telescope, so basically you get snapshots of whatever you are looking at. Because NMSU has 100 percent of the time on the 1-meter, we can engage in projects that require long-term monitoring or that are too risky to be awarded time on a larger telescope."

In addition, he said, small telescopes are vital for student training, because developing the skills to be an efficient observer takes time and practice.

A lot of important astronomical research does not require a large telescope, Harrison added. An example is follow-up observations of exoplanets - recently discovered planets orbiting distant stars. Detecting these objects requires the high-resolution spectroscopy of a large telescope, but once the planets are known, smaller telescopes can be used to observe the transits that occur in edge-on systems, where the planet crosses in front of the star as seen from Earth.

One of the instruments that will be added to the 1-meter telescope - a high-speed photometer that can measure five or six colors of the spectrum simultaneously - will be useful in observing these transits.

"By observing at high speed we can search for structure in the atmosphere - or even the presence of atmosphere - and look for clouds," Harrison said. "Depending on the composition of the clouds, they will look different at different wavelengths, so we can glean some idea as to their nature."

High-speed photometry also is used in studying all types of active stars, especially binary systems that are transferring mass from one star to another, he noted.

"As far as I know there will be no other instrument on the planet that will have the high-speed multi-color capability of our new instrument," Harrison said.

Harrison and NMSU colleague Jon Holtzman, co-principal investigator on the project, also plan to hook the 1-meter telescope up to a large spectrograph on the 3.5-meter ARC telescope, located next to it at Apache Point, by way of optical fibers. That would mean greater productivity for both the 1-meter telescope and the million-dollar spectrograph, which is not always in use on the 3.5-meter telescope.

In addition, the upgrade will include the integration of a large new digital CCD camera that was built in collaboration with Los Alamos National Laboratory into the telescope to allow wider-field operation.

"We will use the improved telescope to continue a range of current science projects, as well as to develop new programs," Harrison said. "Our efforts will involve science and engineering graduate and undergraduate students with both engineering and research opportunities, including instrument design and deployment as well as software development."