Edition 2015

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Eye on the Sky

By Audry Olmsted

Apache Point Observatory

Apache Point Observatory in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey’s 2.5-meter telescope is on the left.

Apache Point astronomers chart the stars

New Mexico State University is working together with several institutions around the world to map the universe.

Apache Point Observatory, located in the Sacramento Mountains, operates four telescopes: the 3.5-meter Astrophysical Research Consortium (ARC) telescope; the 2.5-meter telescope of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS); the 1.0-meter NMSU telescope; and the SDSS 0.5-meter photometric telescope. NMSU is a member of ARC and operates the observatory through the Department of Astronomy.

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

NMSU, the University of Chicago, University of Colorado, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, University of Virginia, University of Washington and the Institute of Advanced Study are conducting research, largely from their remote locations, about the galaxy. SDSS observing is done by a permanent staff of resident scientific observing specialists at the observatory.

NMSU operates the observatory for the group of ARC institutions, Anderson said, and ARC astronomers stay in regular contact with the partnering institutions by email and phone so that everyone is up to date as to what work is being done with each telescope.

1.0-meter telescope

The 1.0-meter telescope is operated by New Mexico State University for research and graduate instruction.

Information about the SDSS projects and the results of the observations are put into an online database accessible to all members of the project to share, something Anderson likened to a very large encyclopedia.

Pinwheel Galaxy

The Pinwheel Galaxy is a face-on spiral in the constellation Ursa Major.

About every six months, that information is updated and made available to astronomers everywhere. Anyone can then access the database to download information on anything from asteroids to white dwarf stars. The publicly available observational databases include images and measurements of stars, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, quasars and other information.

The third phase of the Sloan survey will extend the mapping of our universe, define the structure of our Milky Way galaxy and initiate a search for massive planets orbiting other stars. This phase began in 2008 and is slated to run until 2014. The project cost will be about $44 million.

The National Science Foundation recently awarded a $9 million grant to ARC to continue the third phase of SDSS project titled “SDSS-III: Massive Spectroscopic Surveys of the Distant Universe, the Milky Way Galaxy, and Extra-Solar Planetary Systems.” The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has awarded this project $7 million and the partner institutions and other funding agencies will provide additional funds. Anderson added that the researchers also have a $7 million additional proposal pending with the Department of Energy.

The third phase of the survey builds upon recently completed 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 our galaxy, the Milky Way, and the rest of the universe.

The four areas of the SDSS-III are: the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS), the second phase of Sloan Extension for Galactic Understanding and Exploration (SEGUE-2), the APO Galactic Evolution Experiment (APOGEE) and the Multi-object APO Radial Velocity Exoplanet Large-area Survey (MARVELS).

nebula NGC 1491

The nebula NGC 1491, located in the constellation Perseus.

The goal of BOSS, Anderson said, is to look for the effects of sound waves in the early universe, which gave rise to the present-day structure.

Orion Nebula

One of the most imaged parts of the night sky is the Orion Nebula.

SEGUE-2 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 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,” Anderson said.

“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 scientific adventures and maintain our leading position in these areas of astronomical research.”

The Apache Point Observatory is located in the Sacramento Mountains, about 20 miles south of Cloudcroft, and is within the Lincoln National Forest.

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