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Apache Point ranked No. 2 among U.S. college observatories

Nov 8, 2019

Credit Photo by Dan Long

Apache Point Observatory, operated by New Mexico State University and owned by the Astrophysical Research Consortium, is ranked second by Collegerank.net among the top 35 college observatories in the country for 2019.
“APO rests on the talents, innovation, commitment and vision of some pretty great astronomers,” said Mark Klaene, director of operations at Apache Point for more than 10 years.

The No. 1 ranking goes to Haleakala Observatory at the University of Hawaii. Others among the top 35 include Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University, Palomar Observatory at California Institute of Technology and Haystack Observatory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

APO, located in Sunspot, about 18 miles south of Cloudcroft in the Sacramento Mountains, is home to four telescopes: the 3.5 meter ARC telescope; the 2.5 meter Sloan Foundation telescope; the 0.5 meter ARC Small Aperture Telescope and New Mexico State University's 1.0 meter telescope.

“Apache Point Observatory’s mission is to provide low cost, low downtime, high quality astronomical data as efficiently as possible,” Klaene said, “while providing economic and social benefits to the community and New Mexico as well as educating the public and providing a facility conducive for higher education astronomical learning.”

Nancy Chanover, NMSU astronomy professor and director of the ARC 3.5 meter telescope at APO, was one of the first graduate students to use the facility for her dissertation research in 1994.

“It had been discovered that a comet had fragmented into 21 pieces and was going to impact Jupiter in July 1994, so there was a worldwide campaign with every telescope available to observe that,” said Chanover. “So I was in the right place at the right time with this new telescope. I was able to make those observations, which helped to kick start my career.”

As APO celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, Chanover, who as ARC director works closely with seven collaborating universities, estimates as many as 1,000 researchers have used these facilities to make their discoveries. The field of astronomy has evolved substantially over the past 25 years, yet APO has remained a relevant, valuable asset to ARC member institutions.

“In today’s world, a lot of astronomy is being done with very large scale surveys where some of the some of the skills that students learn in their graduate programs are focused on how to manipulate large databases, how to evaluate information from millions of galaxies instead of looking at just one or two at a time,” Chanover said. “APO’s training and education mission remains focused on teaching students how astronomical data are collected and analyzed, so they can better understand what is in the large survey databases. APO also has evolved to be responsive to new discoveries of time-varying astronomical phenomena, which often require quick turn-round telescopic observations in order to be characterized.”

In ranking the top 35 college observatories, Collegerank.net scored the observatories based on four main criteria: the altitude (those 5,000 feet or more above sea level received extra points), weather (each was given a Clear Skies rating), number of telescopes and light pollution. Special points were added for diverse and specialized technologies. Bonus points were given for noteworthy aspects of the observatory, the most common being those listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
APO sits on a mountain 9,200 feet above sea level. The night sky seen from APO is among the darkest in the U.S.

Chanover gives credit to Klaene and the staff at APO for keeping facilities at the 25-year-old observatory in excellent condition – ready for the next generation of astronomers. Klaene insists the observatory’s success is a team effort.

“APO is where it is today because of the founders and scientists, but also the staff who are dedicated, hard-working and smart,” Klaene said. “They all understand that after safety, the highest priority is if the weather is clear, the telescopes are observing at the highest efficiency and quality we can deliver, every minute of every night.”

For a complete list of the CollegeRank.net ranking and methodology, please visit https://www.collegerank.net/amazing-college-observatories/.

Information from NMSU