The Columbia-based Universities Space Research Association (USRA) opened a new Remote Observation Center on Feb. 2, bringing a unique capability to its Columbia Gateway Business Park headquarters.

Located in a dedicated facility, the Observation Center links to the W. M. Keck Observatory on the summit of the Maunakea volcano, in Hawaii. The twin telescopes there are among the world’s largest optical and infrared telescopes, weighing more than 300 tons each and operating with nanometer precision to study everything from distant galaxies to the planets orbiting our sun.
What it means for astronomers in the Baltimore-Washington area is a much shorter trip to utilize the telescopes for their research.

USRA’s Remote Observation Center is one of only two on the East Coast, the other located at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

“Access to the Keck telescopes from the Baltimore-D.C. area will greatly increase the flexibility of usage of the facilities and save considerable travel expense,” said USRA Senior Vice President for Science Nicholas White. “We are very pleased to provide this service to the entire Keck user community.”

Regional Demand

The Remote Observation Center is funded solely by USRA through corporate funds, expanding the independent, nonprofit research corp.’s mission to support the regional space science and technology community.

“We’re extremely pleased to see USRA offer remote access to the telescopes that host a suite of eight state-of-the-art observing instruments to collect and analyze astronomical data,” said Anne Kinney, chief scientist at the Keck Observatory. “A ninth instrument will be available within a few months.”

According to White, these instruments are primarily spectrographs, useful for determining how far away an object is, its speed, the elemental composition of its surface and atmosphere, if any, and even atmospheric turbulence that can indicate weather.

Scientists who want to take direct control of the telescopes using the Remote Observation Center must first submit a proposal through the appropriate Time Allocation Committee, said White. Observers can also use the system in eavesdrop mode, in which another operator at a different location actually controls the telescopes.

The location of the new facility at Columbia Gateway should prove advantageous for a multitude of regional universities and agencies.

“It’s a nice, central location,” White said, providing easy access for users from the Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), The Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and the Space Telescope Science Institute which serves as operations center for the Hubble Space Telescope and the future James Webb Space Telescope, to name just a few. “We have a lot of NASA-funded scientists in the area who are all potential users.”

Shortened Commute

Scientists at the Hopkins’s Applied Physics Laboratory, in North Laurel, are among the area’s most frequent users of the Keck Observatory.

“Traveling to Hawaii [isn’t] such a bad thing,” said APL’s Hal Weaver, project scientist on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond. “But having a facility in Columbia dramatically reduces the personal investment needed to support these observing runs.”

APL Planetary Astronomer and Cometary Scientist Neil Dello Russo said the new facility enables a more efficient use of time and travel funds.

“It’s a lot easier to deal with the long nights physically when you don’t have to deal with the jet lag associated with the long trip to Hawaii,” he said.

Due to the highly competitive demand for time on the telescopes, it’s rare to schedule more than one or two nights of observation, he said, adding that unexpected weather changes can sometimes result in a long trip to collect no data whatsoever.

“Most of the downside to [remote observing] is on the communication side,” Dello Russo said, citing difficulties in preparing for observations with any support astronomers who are located on site. “The biggest issue is the communications link itself: If the Internet connection goes down, then you are observing in the blind to a large extent. It’s rare, but it does happen.”

Dello Russo and his team used the new USRA facility for two runs in mid-February to observe a comet, and were happy to discover a modern facility, with a kitchenette and lounge area.

“It’s a nice feature if you have some down time due to weather or unexpected problems,” he said. “The staff at USRA were very helpful, and did all they could to make our runs as successful as possible. We will definitely be using the facility in the future. In fact, there are several good upcoming comet apparitions, so we hope to use the facility at least a couple of times a year for the next few years.”

According to White, the first observations supported by the facility were made by a NASA postdoctoral student at GSFC in support of NASA’s JUNO probe orbiting Jupiter.

On the Horizon

USRA moved into its new, 90,000-square-foot headquarters in 2013. Since then, it has been using the space as part of its mission to directly support government and university research, as well as related private sector needs.

The Remote Observation Center joins USRA’s STEM Education Center, dedicated in 2015, with the combined spaces accounting for about one quarter of USRA’s available capacity.

“We’re always looking for new ideas for how we can continue to develop this space to best serve the area’s scientific and astronomy community,” White said.

One idea under consideration is the installation of a satellite dish on the roof that could downlink data from satellites or swarms of CubeSats, miniature satellites that typically have a much shorter mission life than traditional satellites.

“We could use some of our space as a mission control center, for building CubeSats, or even as laboratories to develop instrumentation to support these missions,” White said. “There’s still a lot of unused space, and so many directions we could go.”

Whatever the usage, USRA administrators said they want to ensure it meets a broad need, like the need met by the Remote Observation Center.

“There’s a lot of unmet demand with so many astronomers located just in this area,” White said. “We’re very excited to be part of it, and that it’s happening right here in the middle of Howard County.”