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U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Representative Steve Pearce have announced New Mexico State University (NMSU) will receive $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to upgrade the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope in Sunspot.

The NSF award — appropriately announced on the fall equinox — will support efforts to transition the operation of the research facility from the National Solar Observatory (NSO) to a university-based consortium led by NMSU.

Located in the Sacramento Mountains, the Dunn Solar Telescope specializes in high resolution imaging and spectroscopy that allows astronomers worldwide to obtain a better understanding of the sun and how space weather impacts Earth. Equipped with advanced adaptive optics that compensate for blurring by the Earth’s atmosphere, DST today provides higher resolution imaging than when it was first built in 1969. The DST also provides a versatile testbed for developing cutting-edge technologies for new telescopes.

The nearby Sunspot Visitor Center and Museum provides visitors information about solar astronomy and the telescopes located at the site.

The National Solar Observatory, which currently operates DST, expects to open a new telescope by 2018 in Hawaii. This move presents an opportunity to transition the DST facility in Sunspot to a new operator. In an April 20, 2016, letter to NSF Director France Córdova, Udall, Heinrich, and Pearce urged NSF to work with potential partners to develop a plan for keeping the DST open and available for solar astronomers.

The NSF award announced today will support science and operations of the DST for a two-year period bridging the gap between the departure of the NSO at the end of 2017 and the development of the NMSU-led Sunspot Solar Observatory Consortium (SSOC) as the primary solar telescope operator beyond 2018.

NMSU already operates several telescopes at the adjacent Apache Point Observatory in Sunspot. Funding from NSF will also allow NMSU to update and upgrade the solar telescope.

“This NSF funding will help upgrade the Dunn Solar Telescope and transform it into an incredible tool for new research by the NMSU-led consortium. Ultimately, NMSU and other researchers will be able to use this cutting-edge telescope to advance our understanding of the impact of the sun on our solar system,” Udall said. “New Mexico has a proud tradition of solar astronomy stretching from some of our state’s earliest inhabitants at Chaco Canyon to pioneering research in the 20th century that took place at Sunspot. As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I’m pleased to support the important work of the Dunn Solar Telescope and NMSU.”