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National Science Foundation announces major grant for Apache Point Observatory

SUNSPOT, N.M. - A $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow Apache Point Observatory (APO) to extend its years of astronomical research and discovery.



With a $9 million grant, awarded by the National Science Foundation, the Apache Point Observatory will be able to continue its work on a project to create a three-dimensional map of the universe with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey project. The SDSS telescope is at the far left.

NSF awarded the grant funds to the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC) for the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) project titled "SDSS-III: Massive Spectroscopic Surveys of the Distant Universe, the Milky Way Galaxy, and Extra-Solar Planetary Systems." New Mexico State University is a member of ARC and operates the observatory through the Department of Astronomy.

"The SDSS III project will provide wonderful research opportunities for our students, staff, and faculty. The four specific focus areas of SDSS III span the range of astronomical studies in which this department is engaged and thus offers opportunity for many within the department," said Jim Murphy, head of the Department of Astronomy.

The third phase of the survey builds upon ongoing projects to map the distribution of quasars and galaxies in space and the distribution of stars within our own galaxy. These projects have already produced the most detailed three-dimensional maps to date of both the galaxy and the universe.

Kurt Anderson, site director for Apache Point Observatory, said they have been ranked "the most scientifically productive observatory in the world, based upon citations to the scientific publications resulting from the SDSS surveys."

The four areas of the third phase of the project are: Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), the second phase of Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration (SEGUE-II), the APO Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE) and the Multi-object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-area Survey (MARVELS).

The goal of BOSS, Anderson said, is to look for sound waves produced in the early universe, leading to the present-day structure.

In SEGUE-II, researchers will concentrate on mapping the outer Milky Way, continuing the first phase of the project to map the structure and constituents of disk, thick disk and halo of our galaxy. Anderson said the measurements uncover the oldest stars and the history of their formation.

The APOGEE project looks into the inner galaxy, a region otherwise obscured by interstellar dust, through the use of infrared spectroscopy.

Researchers aim to discover extrasolar planetary systems by precision radial velocities, Anderson said, through MARVELS. "A planet orbiting a star causes extremely small 'wobbles' in the motion of the star, which can now be detected using these new radical velocity measurement technologies," he said.

Anderson said the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has also committed $7 million to sponsor the SDSS project. He added that a proposal has been submitted to the Department of Energy.

The third phase of the survey, which started in 2000, began in July. This funding will allow researchers at the observatory to continue their work on the project through 2014.

"Apache Point Observatory is one of the most important scientific facilities in the state of New Mexico," Anderson said. "With these grants, we will be able to take on new astronomical adventures and maintain our leading position in these areas of astronomical research."

"We are very excited to be a part of this world-class activity and to partner with such strong astronomy programs here in the U.S. and around the world. The support that the National Science Foundation is again providing to the Sloan Digital Sky Survey operations at APO speaks volumes about the expertise and quality performance provided by the NMSU personnel who operate that facility," Murphy said.

The observatory is located in the Sacramento Mountains, about 20 miles south of Cloudcroft, and is within the Lincoln National Forest. It is operated by NMSU and is the home to several telescopes in addition to the 2.5-meter SDSS instrument.