It was a Thursday morning in mid-July when I sat inside one of two white Suburbans with government license plates and admired the desert landscape, while the SUV’s crunched along a bumpy gravel path through a dry mountainside. Ponderosa pines and fir trees tickled the roof as we wound higher in elevation. I was in the passenger seat of the first vehicle, clutching my old notebook and new information packet, eagerly anticipating our final destination: The Magdalena Ridge Observatory.The New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology is more than classrooms full of bright scientists, and Magdalena Ridge—also referred to as South Baldy—is home to more than ideal camping spots and hiking trails. Nestled at the top of the gorgeous desert peak is some of New Mexico Tech’s finest engineering and astronomy equipment, and I was lucky enough to be included on a grand tour of the fascinating machinery.I panted my way up the observatory staircase at 10,630 feet in elevation and craned my neck to see the 2.4-meter telescope that Dr. Eileen Ryan had spoken about in the control room a few flights below. Even with Dr. Ryan’s introduction and my high expectations, to say I was impressed would be a gross understatement. Inside of the shiny metal dome, members of various media organizations along with NM Tech staff looked positively tiny compared to the massive and powerful machine. One reason it felt so powerful was because it was a mystery to me. I knew that it could magnify objects more than 2.5 million (yeah, million) times better than the human eye, and that it could move at a rate of 10 degrees per second, but those calculated abilities were absolutely foreign and out of my reach. I was an amateur climber in the midst of Mount Everest. The telescope was an omniscient being, alive almost.NM Tech uses the 2.4-meter telescope for astronomy, national security and educational purposes. They work to understand the objects that enter Earth’s atmosphere, and based on careful calculations and observations they determine whether or not these objects might be threats to the planet. In the observatory, we all looked up towards the ceiling as we moved around the telescope in a long, slow circle. Smack dab in the middle of the giant contraption was an enormous mirror—one of two spares from the Hubble telescope. At first glance the mirror looked like a gaping hole going clear through to the other side of the circular room, but it was actually a reflective surface used for absorbing light from fantastically large distances away. I have always interpreted light similarly to the way I interpret space and time—as something abstract—so when I learned that you could collect light, transport it and analyze it, I was both confused and intrigued. Moving an intangible object sounded impossible, and analyzing light that bounced off an asteroid to determine the asteroid’s characteristics sounded even more impossible. Spoiler alert: It’s not. Using light to learn about foreign objects is very possible and the dedicated, passionate scientists at New Mexico Tech devote their time and energy to doing exactly that, using the 2.4 telescope as a means for their discoveries.I left the observatory in a haze of knowledge and awe before remembering that it was only a portion of the tour. In a large building called The Balloon Hangar, I was greeted by a 32-foot long balloon suspended from the ceiling. The Balloon Hangar, which is part of the Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, is where scientists study lightning and atmospheric qualities that exist in thunderstorms. They launch balloons, rockets and aircrafts into storms to measure properties like electric fields and to learn about the nature of lightning (which is largely unknown). Though lightning can’t be simulated, it can be triggered. The group was introduced to one of the rockets used to trigger lightning, which, simply put, was two silver poles with neon green and orange duct tape on one end. We also saw stunning and colorful 3-D images of rocket-triggered lightning flashes.Program Director Ifan Payne then briefly explained how telescopes work, using simplified examples and computer graphics. Inside yet another building Principal Investigator Van Romero gave a tour through enormous rooms with pipelines dedicated to delaying the path of light so that it matches the path of a different telescope, and explained equipment like the interferometer, used for looking into deep space to help us understand how galaxies and stars form and evolve.This is all just the tip of the Magdalena Ridge Observatory iceberg. I could hardly grasp the concepts that were touched upon during my time atop the mountain, but what I really took away was the incredible practice of constantly seeking information, even if that search takes place in overwhelmingly giant, dark places like outer space. The friendly crew of thinkers showing me around their turf presented science as accessible and actually quite simple. One scientist pulled a handful of marbles out of her pocket to demonstrate how asteroids are formed, and used a soda bottle to model their behavior in space. I was reminded that science is most definitely fantastic, beautiful and mysterious, but it doesn’t necessarily take a genius to explore the unknown. Curiosity and determination enables anyone to be a scientist, and questioning the world around us and beyond us is just the first step to collecting light.
You see, kids, this device is how we give extraterrestrials a little payback.