SOCORRO, New Mexico (STPNS) -- New Mexico Tech’s Magdalena Ridge Observatory is already making its mark in the annals of astronomy research after being recently tasked by NASA to make detailed observations of an asteroid that is now given a 1-in-75 chance of hitting Mars on January 30, 2008.

On Tuesday afternoon, December 18, Observatory researchers began tracking the asteroid, designated 2007 WD5, with the research facility’s 2.4-meter telescope.

The observations taken that evening are directly responsible for increasing the probability of an impact from about 1-in-350 to 1-in-75, resulting in the current level of excitement about this celestial object.  

The Observatory MRO is near the summit of the 10,800-foot
Magdalena Mountains about 26 miles west of Socorro.

“It was quite surprising to all of us at the Magdalena Ridge Observatory when out of the blue we received an emergency request from NASA to point our telescope at this particular asteroid which had only been discovered last month,” said Eileen Ryan, project scientist and manager.

“We’ll resume tracking 2007 WD5 on December 26, when it re-appears from its current trajectory which has taken it behind the Moon,” Ryan said. “We’re all thrilled to be playing a significant role in this latest NASA project.”

If the 160-foot diameter asteroid strikes Mars next month, the event would be considered a “scientific bonanza,” NASA scientists said, since an asteroid impact with a planet has never been observed — the closest thing being the 1994 collision of Comet Shoemaker-Levy with Jupiter.

“If this collision with Mars does happen, seeing two impacts occur on major planetary bodies in the course of a decade or so reinforces the point that the Near-Earth Object (NEO) risk is more than just the subject of
Hollywood movies,” Ryan said.

Since NASA now has the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently mapping the planet, Ryan said, NASA scientists will be able to maneuver the orbiter into position to image an impact event if one does occur.  In addition, NASA’s two rovers, Opportunity and Spirit, may also be able to take pictures from the surface of Mars.

“If a body this size impacts Mars, the resulting crater could be as large as a half a mile in diameter,” Ryan related.

The MRO is primarily intended for astronomical research and includes two distinct facilities — a single 2.4-meter-diameter telescope and a moveable array of up to ten 1.4-meter-diameter telescopes linked together to form a single optical interferometer.

Initial research projects being conducted with the MRO 2.4-meter telescope are more along the lines of “classical astronomy,” MRO scientists said, and include an ongoing study of small bodies in our own Solar System, primarily near-Earth objects such as asteroids.

Research at the Observatory also is ongoing in the area of space situational awareness, characterizing artificial objects in the near-Earth zone to contribute to national security efforts for the
U.S. Department of Defense.

“The MRO operates one of the largest telescopes in the world that is currently undertaking as a primary mission the observation and physical characterization of near-Earth objects,” said Ryan.

In addition, with the Observatory’s extensive and unprecedented capabilities, astrophysicists also are able to better study and understand the processes of star and planet formation, stellar accretion and mass loss and active galactic nuclei.

Tech is the lead institute of a research-university consortium that was formed to design, develop, construct, test, and operate the Observatory. Additional members of the international consortium include the
Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge in England, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University, University of Puerto Rico, and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

For more information, log onto the facility’s website at