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Beyond the Stars and Expectations

By Audry Olmsted

Apache Point Observatory grows from a minor idea to internationally known facility

A modest project to look at the stars has turned into a first-class, multimillion dollar research facility that scientists, educators and students from around the world look to when they want to learn the secrets the universe holds.

Apache Point Observatory, operated by New Mexico State University, has become an internationally known center that has made major contributions to our knowledge of the universe. The observatory attracts not only astronomical researchers, but professionals in many other areas of science and engineering. APO is also engaged in student research and instruction, preparing the current generation of graduate students for the competitive world of scientific research.

“This was a nice little project that very quickly got out of hand,” said Kurt Anderson, site director. “It grew far beyond our initial expectations.”

A home for Apache Point

Apache Point began as an idea in the early 1980s among astronomers at NMSU, the University of Chicago, the University of Washington, Washington State University and Princeton University. They formed the Astrophysical Research Consortium to find a new location to build a telescope in order to further their astronomical research.

Apache Point Observatory

Apache Point Observatory was an idea created in the 1980s by a group of institutions that formed the Astrophysical Research Consortium. NMSU operates the facility.

The original plan was to construct a basic 2-meter telescope with modest instrumentation. But the project quickly expanded as other opportunities, challenges, and resources appeared; the universities eventually abandoned the plan for a 2-meter telescope and decided to design and construct a 3.5-meter telescope that would become the second-largest university-owned telescope in the world and would be fully equipped for optical and near-infrared astronomy.

Anderson said the consortium investigated various locations in the United States and concluded that a site in the Sacramento Mountains, near Sunspot, N.M., 18 miles south of Cloudcroft, would be an ideal home for the observatory. Astronomers were attracted to the mountain range because it is high and dry and has good weather and airflow patterns. Peak 9183 in the Sacramento Mountains became Apache Point.

Consortium members began preparing for the observatory, building roads and power lines, even before they were awarded $3.74 million for the project.

After some delays, the 3.5-meter telescope was completed in the early 1990s.

In 1994, the telescope saw “first light” with observations of Messier 51, better known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. In the following years three additional telescopes were to be constructed at APO.

Look into the universe

Apache Point is presently home to the consortium’s 3.5-meter telescope, the Sloan Digital Sky Survey 2.5-meter telescope, a 20-inch photometric telescope, and the NMSU 1.0-meter telescope.

The 3.5-meter telescope is a general purpose instrument that studies a variety of astronomical objects from planets in our own solar system to more distant galaxies. It is used with a number of spectrographs and imaging devices to make observations at optical and infrared wavelengths.

This telescope incorporates several innovations that make viewing the night sky particularly efficient. The consortium’s telescope is of compact and lightweight design. It can quickly point anywhere in the sky, acquire the desired object, and track it during measurement. Various forms of thermal insulation and venting systems control the temperature of the telescope structures and the airflow of its surroundings to ensure superb image quality. Several spectrographs and specialized imaging devices are permanently mounted on the telescope. These are maintained in a “ready” state, meaning the telescope can quickly respond to different scientific requirements, changing observing conditions, or unexpected celestial events, such as a supernovae. Most observations are conducted remotely through computer commands sent over the Internet from the astronomer at some distant institution.

Whirlpool Galaxy

Messier 51, better known as the Whirlpool Galaxy, was the first image observed through the ARC 3.5-meter telescope in 1994.

Astronomers at APO are now in the third phase of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS-III), with a goal to create a three-dimensional map of our universe. The 2.5-meter SDSS telescope incorporates many of the design ideas from the 3.5-meter telescope, but also has innovations of its own, such as a unique moving baffle system that shields the optical components from wind and the camera and spectrographs from stray light.

In terms of its impact on astronomy, the SDSS instrument continues to be ranked the most highly cited telescope in the world – or in space.

SDSS III has four survey areas: 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).

The goal of BOSS, Anderson said, is to observe the large-scale structures of the present day universe, whose dimensions reflect those of acoustic waves propagating in the early universe. BOSS observations will provide the most precise distance determinations available for mapping the cosmos.

SEGUE-2 will concentrate on mapping the outer Milky Way, continuing the first phase of the project, which mapped the structure and constituents of the disk, thick disk and halo of our galaxy. Anderson said the measurements should uncover the oldest stars and provide the history of their formation and evolution.

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. These measurements should also provide new insights into stellar pulsations and variability.

The 20-inch photometric telescope was originally used during SDSS survey operations to continuously monitor the brightness of the sky and transparency of Earth’s atmosphere and to provide calibration for the 2.5-meter telescope observations. It is now also employed for imaging and photometry of stars, nebulae, and galaxies The 1.0-meter telescope is used by NMSU for research and graduate instruction. It studies extended objects, such as nebulae, galaxies, star clusters and clusters of galaxies. This telescope is fully computer controlled and can be operated from Apache Point or from the NMSU campus.

ARC telescope

ARC’s 3.5-meter telescope studies a variety of astronomical objects from planets in our own solar system to more distant galaxies.

An impact in New Mexico

Apache Point Observatory has grown significantly since it saw “first light” in 1994. More telescopes and more people have been added, from a mere three employees to the 30 who now conduct on-site operations at Apache Point.

“A facility like APO brings to New Mexico a sizable and well-paid staff of scientists and engineers who, with their families, contribute positively to the local culture and economy,” Anderson said.

Anderson noted that an astronomical observatory is a “business” that imposes few demands on the environment while contributing significantly to the local economy.

Apache Point Observatory and the Department of Astronomy also make a contribution to tourism in New Mexico by jointly operating along with the U.S. Forest Service, the National Solar Observatory, the New Mexico Department of Tourism, and the Sunspot Astronomy and Visitor Center.

“We’re a very clean industry,” he added. Of the dollars spent operating the observatory, Anderson said, more than 84 percent comes from out-of-state sources and funding agencies.

Then and now

Apache Point has come a long way from the first seed of an idea almost 30 years ago. Its astronomers have upgraded from using the first Macintosh computers and telephone modems for communications over the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network – the predecessor to the Internet – to using state-of-the-art technology that has helped to increase the variety of astronomy-related projects available.

The original facility, which cost about $11 million, is now valued at $50 million, and the cost of operations now averages about $3.2 million per year, divided mostly between the SDSS project and the 3.5-meter telescope.

The ARC family has grown to include the Institute for Advanced Study, the University of Colorado-Boulder, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Virginia in addition to the founding institutions. NMSU continues to manage the facilities for the consortium. Many other institutions world-wide participate through the SDSS collaborations.

Researchers continue to seek out new ideas and partnerships with other astronomers and observatories as well as grants and other funding opportunities to ensure they will be studying the night sky for years to come.

“I think we’ve been very successful in obtaining continuing funding support for Apache Point Observatory operations and the Sloan project,” Anderson said. “Apache Point Observatory has been a very productive astronomical facility. If you have a successful operation, producing good science and interesting discoveries, future funding becomes more likely. So, we’re not anticipating closing down our observatory anytime soon.”


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