NMSU engineer adapts instrumentation for gas-giant planet research

DATE: 03/03/2019
WRITER: Linda Fresques, 575-646-7416, lfresque@nmsu.edu
CONTACT: David Voelz, 575-646-3471, davvoelz@nmsu.edu

A collaborative group of researchers in New Mexico and France have been peering into the night sky at Jupiter – through a solar telescope – to discover the origins of the Sun’s planetary system. 

New Mexico State University Electrical Engineering Professor David Voelz is retrofitting instrumentation for use with the Sunspot solar telescope to investigate the interior composition and structure of the planet Jupiter. (NMSU photo)

New Mexico State University Electrical Engineering Professor David Voelz is retrofitting an instrument developed in France to detect and capture the data found with the Dunn Solar Telescope located at Sacramento Peak, Sunspot, New Mexico. 

The NASA-funded project, Jovian Interiors from Velocimetry Experiment in New Mexico (JIVE in NM), began in 2014. The collaboration was initiated through Jason Jackiewicz, NMSU associate professor of astronomy who specializes in solar astronomy, and colleagues at the Observatoire de Cote D’Azur in Nice, France. Jackiewicz serves as Project PI and Voelz, who was recruited for engineering, serves as Instrument PI. Other collaborators include New Mexico Tech and Los Alamos National Laboratory.

NASA’s planetary science goal is to discover how the Sun’s family of planets originated and evolve. The gas-giant planets, Jupiter and Saturn, are deemed the “seeds of the early Solar System,” however, little is known about their interior composition and structure. 

“The French group designed highly sensitive imaging instrumentation that can measure the Doppler shift of light reflected off the planet,” explained Voelz. “It can measure the rotation rate and motions in the planet’s outer layer of atmosphere, which include pulsations and oscillations that are caused by huge waves traveling within the gasses that make up much of Jupiter.”

“We don’t know the density or composition of the interior of the planet. But we can match the data collected with theoretical models and tune them to generate a model that accurately describes the interior structure of the planet.”

The scientists and engineers from Nice designed the initial instruments using analytical methods that were originally developed for observing the Sun and which first demonstrated that Jupiter pulsates. 

The Sunspot location, near Alamogordo, is ideal for this research. The Dunn was inaugurated as the world’s premier high-spatial resolution optical solar telescope in 1969. Astronomers worldwide use the facility to conduct solar research. While in high demand during daylight hours, the telescope is fairly accessible to the JIVE in NM researchers for nighttime studies.

The engineering challenge faced by Voelz was to retrofit the 50-year-old telescope that uses analog instrumentation, with a new, extremely sensitive device that uses three cameras, four computers and an optical interferometer that resides in a temperature controlled, water cooled vacuum chamber. 

The Dunn Telescope at Sunspot, New Mexico, is being used by New Mexico State University researchers to investigate the composition of the planet Jupiter. (Photo by Doug Gilliam)

“Doppler measurements are very sensitive,” said Voelz. “It’s complicated.” 

Voelz included collaboration of undergraduate and graduate students in his challenge. Electrical engineering Ph.D. candidate Thomas Underwood led a group that included undergraduate students in coupling the instrument’s optical guidance and tracking component with the telescope. 

Several runs of observing Jupiter have been successful, yielding good data thus far. This past spring, the group observed Mars. Observing a solid body helps in fine-tuning the instrument’s calibration. 

The long-term plan for the research is to build a network of observatory sites around the world. The first site was in France and a site in Japan is currently in the works. 

“Because the oscillations and pulses are so small, we need to have a lot of observation time,” Voelz said.

More information on this project can be found at http://astronomy.nmsu.edu/JIVE.


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