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Magdalena Ridge Observatory

The Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has teamed with a consortium of universities to plan and design an optical interferometer in the Magdalena Mountains in central New Mexico. Through a cooperative agreement signed in September, 2001, with New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, the financial arm for the observatory, NRL was designated as the government lead for the project.

The Magdalena Ridge Observatory (MRO), a joint endeavor between the university consortium and the Department of Defense, will enable scientists and engineers to determine how to increase sensitivity for ground-based interferometers. Of special interest is the opportunity to explore how adaptive optics might combine with medium-sized apertures for a given array configuration.

NRL will play an important technical advisory role, contributing unique expertise gained from the Laboratory's success in designing, building and conducting research with the Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer (NPOI) in Flagstaff, Arizona. NPOI is a high-precision, long-baseline optical interferometer that provides highly accurate measurements of star positions.

The MRO can potentially be a next-generation optical interferometer. Researchers at MRO will further develop the interferometry techniques used at NPOI, using larger telescopes and new technologies. Adaptive optics, in particular, which can compensate for optical effects of the atmosphere, could enable the use of medium-sized telescopes, thereby significantly increasing the sensitivity of such instruments.

Candidate configurations for the observatory are being considered now. One possible configuration may be three 2.4-meter telescopes two fixed and one moveable on a 250-meter baseline, which can be used either singly or be linked together using interferometry techniques. Interferometry allows multiple telescope signals to combine and obtain higher resolution than an individual signal. When linked by optical interferometry, the three MRO telescopes would have the potential resolving power of a single 250-meter telescope. The technical advances achieved at MRO will, in turn, help NRL researchers further the continued development of NPOI, which has a planned baseline of 437 meters.

Scientists would use the more sensitive instrument to survey galaxies and image their cores, study planets, search for extrasolar planets and study atmospheric turbulence. The telescopes, when decoupled, would track non-celestial objects such as satellites and make images of geostationary satellites

The design, construction, and operation of the MRO will be under the auspices of a university research consortium whose members include New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, the University of Puerto Rico, and Los Alamos National Laboratory. NRL plans to have an on-site duty station in New Mexico, which will enhance research opportunities for university students and create avenues for further collaboration between the participating universities and the Laboratory.

Construction will begin in 2002, with a completion date in 2006. The MRO is funded by the Office of Naval Research.

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