After visiting EMRTC, we attended a backyard picnic for alumni, and I was treated to my second chuckwagon BBQ dinner in a week--- naturally, with all the trimmins. I did my best to find millionaire alumni in the crowd and suck up to them--- for the good of the college, naturally. Following the meal were some lengthy speeches in which various people were recognized and awarded. Annoyingly, this event was held in front of the bar, thus preventing me from getting my third beer.
After dinner we put on our cold-weather clothes and met at the Macy Center parking lot, where a sinister-looking line of SUVs awaited us. It looked like the motorcade of some Balkan strong man. We piled in and left town in a convoy, no doubt convincing the locals that Homeland Security had arrived.
Our destination was the Magdalena Ridge Observatory, site of what is probably the world's most advanced optical telescope. The observatory is at an altitude of 10,600 feet, a mile above Socorro, and it takes an hour to climb the precarious switchback road carved into the side of Old Baldy. Four-wheel-drive is mandatory, hence our SUVs. Had it been daylight, we would have seen spectacular and terrifying views, and as it was, we gazed over the verge of the road into a dark abyss.
Because Cambridge is one of the agencies that has put money into this project, Prince Andrew (now officially the world's most boring royal) was sent back in 2003 to do Something to commemorate starting the work. He couldn't break ground, because they hadn't started anything yet, so instead he planted a tree. (This in the middle of a forest, mind you.) Kathy, who was one of the photographers, reported it was amusing to watch Senator Dominici and other New Mexico bigwigs trying to cram themselves into the frame alongside the Duke of York and achieve a whiff of tabloid recognition.
The 2.4-meter telescope is now complete and is undergoing its trials prior to being accepted by MRO. The 70+inch mirror was originally the backup mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope, and was due to be discarded until some canny New Mexico scientist got together with some canny New Mexico politicians and gave birth to the MRO.
We entered the structure and observed, on a large plasma TV, a tumbling object against a background of streaming stars. This, it turned out, was the discarded booster of a Delta rocket, still in orbit around Earth.
We were divided into teams, and half of us sent into the dome. The telescope itself has a separate foundation from the rest of the structure, going 80 feet through rubble down to bedrock. The telescope looks more or less like you'd expect a big telescope to look, a huge mirror gazing out at an open structure of beams, with a collector at the far end--- except this isn't a collector, it's another mirror that shoots the image to a third mirror, which is adjustable and can spin to send the image to any number of collectors--- the optical, the IR, the spectroscope, so that the same image can be analyzed sixteen ways from Sunday. At the moment, though, only the optical collector is installed.
The mirror, which was designed to operate in earth orbit, now has to cope with full gravity, and is now supported by adjustable pneumatic "pillows," which require a lot of pneumatic tubing that coil up the inner support structure.
Since there's defense money in here somewhere, the telescope was designed to track missile launches from White Sands, and unlike other scopes will also track all the way down to the horizon. The telescope tracks with amazing speed, and in complete silence. If you're in the dome and aren't paying strict attention, you can get whacked with tons of equipment.
The dome, on the other hand, makes lots of noise when it spins, which is good because it's got these big blowers attached to the inside that bring the outside air in, so that differences in temperature won't warp the mirror, and those things can mow you down faster than the Marines.
Our guide said that if we looked up while the dome was spinning, we'd experience vertigo, but that wasn't my case. It was looking level that set off my inner alarms, seeing the walls rushing by at great speed.
We were then taken down to the control room again, for hot chocolate, cookies, some viewing and a talk. The computer-guided imaging is quite spectacular, and we saw a glorious image of a spiral galaxy. We also saw some asteroids, which were part of a talk that we were promised would terrify us. Possibly it does terrify some people, but I've known about Earth-crossing asteroids for some time.
The scope's current mission is to locate the estimated 30% of the 1-kilometer-or-larger Earth-crossing asteroids that have yet to be discovered, thus possibly saving civilization. (Our civilization had a near-miss just last week, when an asteroid, discovered just days before, passed within three lunar orbits of the Earth.)
The 2.4 meter scope is not the only facility that the completed MRO will contain. Construction is underway for the Magdalena Ridge Observatory Interferometer, an array of ten 1.4-meter mirrors set along a baseline of 400 meters, which when complete will have the resolving power of a 400-meter telescope, thus doing for optical astronomy what the Very Large Array has done for radio astronomy.
There'll be some great images coming from that, you betcha.
Then it was out into the freezing cold again, and back into our SUV convoy for the return trip to Socorro. The stars seemed very close.
When the MROI is completed in 2-3 years, I'll expect be crashing homecoming yet again.