McDonald Observatory and Partners Receive Federal Appropriation, Move Forward Plans to Develop New Astronomy Facility

27 September 2004

AUSTIN — A $2.8 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 and fund major upgrades to the Hobby-Eberly Telescope (HET), one of the world's largest optical telescopes. These funds are an addition to an initial appropriation made in September 2003.

The appropriation funds a program called “NESSI” — the Near Earth Space Surveillance Initiative. It involves moving a 1.8-meter telescope from New Mexico to McDonald Observatory. This telescope, the CCD Transit Instrument (CTI), has a special detector array that creates a large-scale image of the sky.

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.

“The value that Mr. Bonilla sees in this initiative for the people of the 23rd District, the State of Texas, as well as the greater science community is gratifying,” said Dr. David Lambert, Director of McDonald Observatory. “The front-line technology that this will develop will be a source of great pride.”

"A seat on the Appropriations Committee is an amazing position to hold," said Bonilla. "I represent one of the largest districts in our nation — that's a lot of people, businesses, and resources to take care of. My role on this committee gives me the opportunity to shepherd and secure funding for my home-district in Texas."

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.

The project will foster a productive partnership between two state astronomy institutions. This partnership builds on longstanding scientific cooperation, as the CTI 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 said. "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."

Proposed upgrades for HET include greatly expanding the useful field-of-view of the telescope, and major improvements to the control system for the telescope. Development will begin on a new instrument for the telescope that will be survey the spectrum of objects in space much more efficiently than ever before. “These efforts will build on what is already a telescope with a novel design that is being used as a model for future large telescopes. The improvements to be made are similarly novel, and will set new standards for astronomy instrumentation,” Lambert said.

The upgrades will dramatically improve the research capabilities of McDonald Observatory. "I'm thrilled to make this announcement. I know the folks in West Texas have been waiting a long time for this funding and I'm honored to provide it," said Bonilla. "I can't wait to hear about the advances made with this great technology. Who knows what the fantastic scientists at the McDonald Observatory will discover next?"

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

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