McDonald Observatory & Partners Receive Federal Appropriation, Will Bring New Research Telescope to Texas

29 September 2003

Austin, Texas—A $3.25 million federal appropriation to The University of Texas at Austin McDonald Observatory, The University of New Mexico, and the Air Force will bring a new research telescope to McDonald. The appropriation will also fund major upgrades to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world’s largest optical telescopes.

U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas) sponsored the appropriation. Mr. Bonilla represents the 23rd Congressional District, which encompasses much of West Texas, including McDonald Observatory. Bonilla’s role as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and Defense Appropriations Subcommittee enabled him to secure funding for the Observatory. "Mr. Bonilla has been very supportive of this initiative," said Dr. Frank Bash, director of McDonald Observatory. "It was through his support that this was able to happen, and we’re grateful to him."

"This funding will mean great things for the McDonald Observatory and the people of West Texas," said Bonilla. "I’m proud to have played a role in securing this funding and look forward to the progress it will make."

The appropriation will bring the 1.8-meter telescope — known as the CCD Transit Instrument (CTI) — from New Mexico to McDonald Observatory. Locating CTI at McDonald rather than creating a new site for it will be a great cost-saver, because it will take advantage of McDonald’s infrastructure of skilled personnel, roads, and electricity. At McDonald, the telescope will also benefit from the darkest night skies in the continental U.S. for astronomical research.

"This project will foster a productive partnership between two state astronomy institutions," McDonald astronomer Dr. Dan Lester said of The Universities of Texas and New Mexico. To further that partnership, astronomers from The University of New Mexico will now be eligible to apply for usage of McDonald’s four research telescopes with the same "preferred-user" status that University of Texas astronomers have.

It is expected that CTI will be up and running at McDonald within the next two years. The telescope was conceived and built by Dr. John McGraw of The University of New Mexico, who received his Ph.D. in astronomy from The University of Texas in 1977.

"CTI uses a novel detector array to create a large-scale image of one portion of the sky, night after night," McGraw says. "If anything changes or moves, this telescope will catch it. Those things include nearby asteroids, middle-distance supernovae, and distant active galaxies containing huge black holes that eat stars and gas for lunch."

Putting CTI at the same site as HET will provide great opportunities for researchers. "The combination of an imaging survey telescope (CTI) and a dedicated spectroscopic telescope (HET) is really powerful and unique," McGraw said. "Anything that CTI can detect, HET can get a spectrum of."

A spectrum of a star, galaxy, or other astronomical object provides information about its motion, temperature, and chemical content. A spectrum is made when the light from that object is broken into its component wavelengths, like a prism breaks visible light into a rainbow. HET specializes in this type of astronomy, called "spectroscopy."

Together, CTI and HET will work to:

  • map the structure of the Milky Way galaxy by looking at the distribution of stars of different types,
  • measure the mass in our galaxy to better understand the missing mass in our universe,
  • understand physical conditions in the centers of distant galaxies where black holes millions of times more massive than our Sun are pulling in stars and gas,
  • and investigate the distribution of material in the earliest galaxies.

Proposed upgrades for HET include greatly expanding the useful field-of-view of the telescope, and major improvements in the reflective coating of the mirrors. "Both improvements will provide major increases in the scientific productivity of HET," Bash said.

The appropriation will be administered by the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque.

This project is called NESSI, or The Near-Earth Space Surveillance Initiative. "Spin-off technology from CTI’s novel detector array applies to optical problems of interest to the Air Force," McGraw said.

According to Bash, "the technology developed will be useful as the Air Force looks for ways to improve space surveillance. Astronomers are expert at building and using ultra-sensitive detectors of objects which move across the sky and this expertise is very useful to the Air Force."

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