Regional
9:43 pm
Fri July 23, 2010

NMSU Proposes National Solar Observatory Relocation To Las Cruces

Las Cruces – Researchers at New Mexico State University are taking major steps to make a commitment to a brighter future for New Mexico.

They hope these steps will attract world-class scientists and engineers to the university as well as bring in quality students who choose to stay in New Mexico after graduation.

NMSU has a long history of working with researchers at the National Solar Observatory, from supplying graduate students to work at the facility to collaborating on grants and research projects.

Now, the NSO is using $280 million from the National Science Foundation to build a telescope in Hawaii that will be the biggest solar instrument in the world when it is completed by 2016. Operation of the telescope will largely be run remotely.

Over the next few years, NSO will consolidate its operations at a university campus, and NMSU is poised to make its case that those operations should make a home at its Las Cruces campus.

"The relocation of the NSO headquarters to New Mexico would enhance the view other people have of our state", said Bernie McNamara, project manager. "It would demonstrate New Mexico's interest in scientific research and clearly show that the state is willing to invest in projects that provide long-term benefits to its citizens. Several of the university's educational departments would also benefit through the willingness of NSO scientists and engineers to teach in their programs. Students would have access to world-class mentors."

The primary goal of the NSO is to study the sun and its effects on the Earth. Researchers at the observatory are interested in the origin, evolution and operation of this dynamic star.

NSO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy under a cooperative agreement with the National Science Foundation.

AURA runs two world-class observing facilities, one at Sacramento Peak in Sunspot, N. M., and the other at Kitt Peak, in Tucson, Ariz.

The observatories are responsible for the ground base-observing program for solar astronomy, data collection and research of the sun.

"The NSO also operates a global network of six telescopes distributed around the globe so that it is never in darkness; they are spaced so researchers can continuously view the sun," said Jason Jackiewicz, an assistant professor of astronomy.

Hawaii was chosen as the site for the new telescope because of its optimal observing conditions. The telescope, Jackiewicz said, will have the ability to study the smallest spatial features on the sun. With a 4-meter mirror, this instrument will be three times the size of any current solar telescope. Five instruments on the telescope will simultaneously collect data at all times.

Because of the high-tech capabilities this new telescope will possess, the facilities in New Mexico and Arizona will no longer be needed and will either close or have their operations significantly reduced.

Several areas of New Mexico State would benefit from the work being done at NSO including the colleges of Business, Engineering, Education, and Arts and Sciences. Faculty and researchers are working on a proposal to convince AURA that NMSU is the ideal place to house their operations.

Proposals are due in December and AURA will announce its decision in 2011.

This year, the New Mexico Legislature signed a joint memorial expressing support for the consolidation of the NSO staff in the state.

"I am thrilled that the project is going forward to bring a center for the NSO here," said Barbara Couture, president of NMSU. "I think we have every right to be a leader in that effort, and I know that we will be good partners with other research universities along with the National Solar Observatory, with the national laboratories and with businesses and the industry as they start learning how this research is going to be beneficial to us all. I'm very, very excited that New Mexico State University is taking a lead on this project."

The estimated cost of the building is between $6 million and $8 million. McNamara said there is very little risk to the state in asking for this funding because if the project is not awarded, the funds will be returned to the state. If NMSU's proposal is accepted, the state would be able to recoup its investment, plus interest, over a short period of time. The university would then continue to earn money from the building's lease.

If NMSU is awarded the proposal, change will happen slowly because the completion of the Hawaiian telescope is still some years away, Jackiewicz said. Until that day arrives, the other NSO sites will need to be maintained. He said the goal would be to have the completion of the new facility in Las Cruces coincide with the completion of the telescope.

"It's not a slam dunk, but New Mexico can make a compelling case for NSO to be here," McNamara said. "In the final analysis, all we can do is put forth our best proposal. We just want to make sure that we've done everything we can to make sure that the benefits New Mexico is offering to this relocation effort are well explained."