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.

Dr. G. Charmaine Gilbreath, the NRL/MRO Science Officer who is with
the Laboratory’s Remote Sensing Division, says that 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, says Dr. Gilbreath, 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.