Science & Tech

Texas A&M Astronomers Win NSF Grant To Study Gravitational Waves

Part of a $516,000 National Science Foundation award will allow Texas A&M researchers build a set of lenses for the TOROS telescope.
By Shana K. Hutchins, Texas A&M University College of Science September 11, 2019

he Observatory at Cordón Macón
The Observatory at Cordón Macón, in the remote Atacama region of northwestern Argentina, which houses the state-of-the-art TOROS research telescope and camera, at one of the best astronomical sites on earth.

Horacio Rodriguez/IATE

Six years ago, two Texas astronomers — Texas A&M University’s Lucas Macri and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Mario Díaz — teamed with Universidad Nacional de Córdoba astronomer Diego Garcia Lambas in an effort to get ahead of what they saw as the next big cosmic thing: gravitational-wave astronomy.

In the years since, their collaboration, called the Transient Optical Robotic Observatory of the South (TOROS), has searched for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational-wave sources using a variety of telescopes across the globe. They also are pursuing funding opportunities to establish their own state-of-the-art telescope and camera in one of the best astronomical sites on Earth, Cordón Macón in northwestern Argentina.

Their persistence recently paid off in the form of a $516,000 award from the National Science Foundation, $175,000 of which will be earmarked to Texas A&M astronomers Darren DePoy and Jennifer Marshall and their team within Texas A&M’s Charles R. ’62 and Judith G. Munnerlyn Astronomical Instrumentation Laboratory. They will use the funds to build a prime-focus corrector, which is a precisely crafted set of lenses that will maximize the field of view of a top-of-the-line 100-megapixel charge-coupled device  camera which will serve as the dedicated instrument of the TOROS telescope.

Construction on Cordón Macón started earlier in 2019, thanks to funding provided by the Argentine National Science Foundation and previous NSF funding to Diaz as the overall principal investigator of the TOROS project. The telescope is expected to be operational in early 2020, initially relying on more modest instrumentation while DePoy and Marshall build, integrate and test the prime-focus camera.

Research team
From left: Texas A&M University astronomer Lucas Macri, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley astronomer Mario Díaz and University of Córdoba astronomer Diego García Lambas, collaborators in the TOROS project to study gravitational wave events in deep space.

OAC UNC

“TOROS will make important contributions to the follow-up of gravitational wave sources and will help develop the next generation of big data astronomers across diverse communities in Aggieland, Argentina and the Rio Grande Valley,” Macri said. “There are many challenges associated with searching large areas of the sky for fast-evolving astronomical sources, making this a great interdisciplinary astrostatistics project for the Texas A&M College of Science. We are grateful for the bi-national support that this project has received.”

Armed with the recent NSF funding and the collaboration’s collective expertise, Texas A&M astronomers are confident TOROS’ own telescope will soon be in the universal hunt.

“We look forward to developing this premier instrument for TOROS and deploying it on Cordón Macón,” said Marshall, who along with DePoy, Macri and then-Ph.D. student Ryan Oelkers traveled to Argentina in mid-2013 to carry out test astronomical observations from the area.

“The Macón site has a lot of promise, as evidenced by its finalist status as a possible site for the billion-dollar European Extremely Large Telescope,” said DePoy, who previously served as project scientist for the 570-megapixel camera behind the U.S. Department of Energy- and NSF-funded Dark Energy Survey.

To learn more about TOROS, which involves about 50 astronomers from all over the world, and the recent NSF award, see the official press release from UTRGV.

This article by Shana K. Hutchins originally appeared on the College of Science website.

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