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New Mexico State University joins Sloan Digital Sky Survey

New Mexico State University has joined the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in ground-based astronomy. The five-year project will produce a three-dimensional map of a large portion of the universe.

Rene Walterbos, head of the NMSU Astronomy Department, stands on a stairway at the Apache Point Observatory with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope behind him. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Becoming a member of the project "opens up an enormous array of possibilities for our faculty and students because the survey touches on almost all aspects of astronomy," said Rene Walterbos, head of the NMSU Department of Astronomy.

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope, located at Apache Point Observatory in southern New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains, was officially dedicated Oct. 5. But the project already had generated international headlines with its discovery of distant quasars, brown dwarfs and other objects during the telescope's preliminary observations.

When the project is complete, it will have produced a mind- boggling amount of data that astronomers will "mine" for decades, said Kurt S.J. Anderson, NMSU astronomy professor and site director of Apache Point Observatory.

"It is analogous to the Human Genome Project" in the amount and significance of the scientific data it will make available, Anderson said. "Astronomers will be able to use the data in the study of the large-scale structure of the universe, extrasolar planets, stellar objects, brown dwarfs, cool white dwarfs -- for almost any object you can name, this project will gather more information than has ever been available before."

NMSU had been involved in the SDSS project previously as operator of Apache Point Observatory. As an affiliate member of the SDSS, the university will contribute approximately $1 million to the project -- expected to cost a total of $26.9 million during its five-year operation phase -- and NMSU astronomers and students will participate directly in the research.

Other participants in SDSS are the University of Chicago, the Institute for Advanced Study, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, the University of Washington, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, the Japan Participation Group, Germany's Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and the United States Naval Observatory. Funding agencies include the Sloan Foundation, NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Walterbos said the NMSU astronomy department will hire a new faculty member specifically to work on the sky survey. Six members of the department -- faculty, post-doctoral researchers and Ph.D. students -- will have full participant status, with direct access to the SDSS data, and other students will have opportunities to become involved in the research, he said.

"It will strengthen our graduate program and help us attract the best students," he said.

Besides the 2.5-meter SDSS telescope, Apache Point Observatory is home to a 1-meter telescope owned by NMSU and a 3.5-meter telescope owned by the Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC), a group of research institutions. NMSU is a member of the ARC and runs the observatory for the consortium.

One of the reasons Apache Point was selected as the site for the SDSS "is the job our faculty have done in operating this observatory," said Gary Cunningham, NMSU's vice president for research.

The Sloan project "is the most exciting thing happening in ground-based astronomy today," Cunningham said. Now that NMSU is an affiliate member, "our faculty and students are able to work at the leading edge of the most important fundamental discoveries in astronomy."

The SDSS mapping and cataloging effort will consist of two parts, Anderson said. First, imaging observations will measure the positions and brightnesses of galaxies, quasars and stars in five wavelength bands extending from the ultraviolet to the infrared. Information about the sizes and shapes of extended objects such as galaxies and nebulae also will be recorded by the electronic detectors of the telescope's camera.

More than 100 million galaxies will be measured in this way, Anderson said.

Second, a large subsample of the objects found in the imaging survey will be observed spectroscopically, which will provide information about the distance, temperature, composition, mass and motion of the objects.

The immense database will become a public archive and astronomers the world over will use it to answer questions that cannot be imagined today, Anderson said.

Photo is available at http://kiernan.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/sloan.jpg.
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CUTLINE: Rene Walterbos, head of the NMSU Astronomy Department, stands on a stairway at the Apache Point Observatory with the Sloan Digital Sky Survey telescope behind him. (NMSU photo by Michael Kiernan)

Karl Hill
Oct. 11, 2000