NMSU Astronomy Professors Welcome New Robotic System to Apache Point

LAS CRUCES — Hundreds of half-dollar-sized robots are changing the way the 2.5-meter Sloan Digital Sky Survey Telescope at Apache Point Observatory helps scientists see the universe.

“I really feel like we’re standing on the shoulders of giants trying to usher in a bold new era of survey science,” said Joe Burchett, assistant professor of astronomy at the State University of New Mexico. “The last 20 years of SDSS have provided an enormous volume of high quality data that has set a high standard for what we can do. It is my job and that of Professor (Jon) Holtzman to ensure that we can maintain this high data quality while surveying the sky much faster with entirely new hardware and software controlling it.

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Apache Point Observatory, located in Sunspot, about 18 miles south of Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains, is home to four telescopes: the Astrophysical Research Corp 3.5-meter Telescope; the Sloan Foundation 2.5 meter telescope; the 0.5 meter ARC Small Aperture Telescope; and NMSU’s 1.0 meter telescope. The telescope cluster sits on a mountain 9,200 feet above sea level. The night sky seen from APO is among the darkest in the United States

Apache Point observatory staff manually plug hundreds of special fiber optic cables into a metal plate that lines up with the area of ​​the sky that NMSU astronomers planned to observe.

“The SDSS project was able to produce such a large volume of data because we can take spectra of hundreds of objects at once,” Burchett said. “This has been achieved over the past 20 years by milling metal plates with holes drilled to match the positions of galaxies, stars and quasars in certain areas of the sky. The fiber optic cables are then plugged at one end into the holes in the plates and fed into the spectrograph at the other end. The spectrograph then divides the wavelength of light by wavelength and records the scattered light from each fiber.

With the new flight robotic focal plane system, tiny robots replaced giant metal plates with up to a thousand holes requiring a staff member to manually plug in hundreds of special fiber optic cables aligned with the area of ​​the sky that astronomers planned to observe. . Now hundreds of little robots do the work. Each has its own patrol area and a small arm. As it rotates, the arm moves in and out, controlling the location of the fiber.

“Before, we were limited on the number of fields we could observe per night, depending on how many patches had been plugged,” said Jamey Eriksen, director of operations at Apache Point Observatory. “Now we can dynamically load a new field and within five minutes the robots position the fibers exactly where they are needed and the researchers can start observing a new project.

“This is a major improvement in telescope capability in that it allows you to have programmable fields and move fibers in the focal plane, on the fly, to different fields much faster than we couldn’t do it before.”

500 robots have now been set up to help scientists at the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, NM.

The 2.5-meter SDSS telescope has been offline since last summer to begin the process of transitioning the telescope to its new hardware and software. The new equipment was installed in December, and researchers from Ericksen and NMSU began the process of commissioning the instrument. This requires a series of tests to configure the precision of the robots in aligning the filaments of the fiber optic cables that capture the light of the galaxies.

A number of NMSU alumni are key members of the SDSS team central to the commissioning process, and current students will help ensure the quality of the data they collect. The commissioning process is expected to be completed this month.

“I’ve always revered the ongoing SDSS operation, with people manually plugging hundreds of fibers into each plate and those plates being manually swapped in and out of the telescope every hour,” Burchett said. “SDSS has transformed modern astronomy with this mode of operation and brought us to where we are with topographic science. Now, to take the next step in transformation, we need to achieve speed, efficiency, and survey volume that can only be achieved by a fully robotic fiber positioning system. »

500 robots have now been set up to help scientists at the Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot, NM.

Burchett’s research focuses on the evolution of galaxies and aligns with many SDSS-V science initiatives, from understanding the impacts of supermassive black holes on host galaxies to the formation and evolution of clusters of galaxies and galactic winds that carry gas enriched with the building blocks of life throughout the universe.

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“Joining the collaboration has extended my global network of leading scientists working in these fields even more than I expected, while providing me and my students with unprecedented cutting-edge datasets that will allow us to innovate. to answer some of the biggest questions in extragalactic astrophysics,” Burchett said.

Watch the ‘dance of light’ during the first test of the flight robotic focal plane system for the Sloan Foundation Telescope.

“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s article was written by Minerva Baumann of NMSU Marketing and Communications. She can be reached at 575-646-7566 or [email protected]

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