Astronomy in Mexico

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico


San Pedro Martir, the Roof of the World

photo by Saul D. Martinez

First of Two Parts, by Saul D. Martinez

Despite being one of the four most important locations for astronomical observations worldwide, the National Astronomical Observatory (NAO) receives less domestic investment than other countries' observatories, which results in long-delayed equipment upgrades.

Located more than 2,800 meters above sea level and enjoying at least 250 days of dark nights a year, the National Astronomical Observatory in San Pedro Martir is a site much in demand by researchers worldwide.

In direct competition with the NAO in San Pedro Martir are astronomical observatories in the Canary Islands, Hawaii, and especially in the Atacama Desert of Chile.

In this two-part series we will present proposed major changes to the Observatory, which mark a historical pattern in the development of science in Mexico and the world.

Close to heaven

On the side of the Transpeninsular Highway, near the village San Telmo, a wooden sign indicates the direction to the park of San Pedro Martir. A two-lane scenic road winds toward the observatory.

A road light in traffic, it leads to a national park of almost 73,000 hectares, passing through plains, some hills, a valley and initially, the homes of local people.

The road's grade is deceptive, almost imperceptible, but is most noticeable at the lookout on kilometer 72, where the view, about a thousand meters above sea level, reveals hills in the distance.

Later, some signs indicate the entrance to the National Park of the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, protected by law since February 21, 1947. Before arriving, some visitors can experience nausea and dizziness from the road's curving switchbacks.

After nearing the entrance to the complex where the National Astronomical Observatory resides, depending on the weather, you may see clouds banks which gradually become mist, as if the hills were flooded.

Once on the premises of the NAO, at a height of 2,830 meters above sea level, visitors may need to get used to the effects the altitude has on the body, such as fatigue, dizziness and even light pains due to pressure in the head.

Tacubaya to San Pedro

The first astronomical observatory in Mexico was at the National Palace. It was transferred to the Castle of Chapultepec in Mexico City, but weather forced its removal to the building of the Archbishop of Tacubaya.

In 1929, the Observatory joined the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and due to the growth of the urban area, they decided to transfer it to the town of Tonantzintla, in Puebla.

However, for the reasons of population growth, it became necessary to find a new location. In collaboration with the University of Arizona, the UNAM began to search and with the help of satellite photographs, decided that San Pedro Martir was the ideal place.

Between 1967 and 1968 it was determined that the Sierra de San Pedro Martir would house the new observatory, so several researchers made riding expeditions to the site to determine the most ideal spot.

By 1969 a cabin was erected, known as the Red Cottage. Later, some bungalows were added to provide lodgings for visitors and researchers.

William Schuster, recognized as one of the pioneers of astronomical research and chief researcher at the Observatory, recalls his arrival in San Pedro Martir, between 1972 and 1973.

Star Hunter

In his office a floor below the telescope, William Schuster fully expects the clouds to dissipate. His glasses hold the reflections of three monitors in front of him.

With 42 years of experience as a researcher at the National Astronomical Observatory, he also oversees the repair of the observatory copula, the very one he plans to activate once the sky has cleared.

When the NAO was installed in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, Schuster traveled to Mexico to participate in the project, then returned to Tucson, Arizona, to defend his thesis. But later, he returned to Mexico.

Schuster is now a Mexican citizen, married in this country and his children were born Mexican. He relates this information with singular joy.

His work is based mostly on the photometry of stars. He proudly boasts of having a catalog of 2000 stars, 400 of which he studied himself, to detect emitted light measurements.

Schuster predicts a rapid withdrawal of astronomy, but says that the ​​scientific discipline is growing in Mexico, particularly with the interest of other countries in the use of San Pedro Martir for the installation of other telescopes or for existing research projects.

For the second half of 2015, there are about 66 pending projects approved by a Selection Committee that will use the telescopes of the NAO, free for national researchers, but with cost for foreigners.

Talking about outer space

Roberto Vazquez Meza, researcher at the National Astronomical Observatory and amateur astronomer for 12 years, was recently appointed coordinator of Popular Science's Institute of Astronomy at UNAM in Ensenada.

Smooth and pleasant in conversation, the researcher is enthusiastic about his new position and knows that to generate interest in science it's necessary to eliminate jargon and know how to express what is interesting about astronomy in a way understood by anyone.

He knowingly assumes that astronomy has always fascinated people and this makes it easy to create interest among children and adults, who are always full of questions and doubts about what lies beyond the visible.

Among his works, he remembers with pride, is a contribution to the locating and identification of a nebula, initially thought smaller. Photographs of his "trophy" are on his office wall, along with a frieze with a caricature of Darth Vader.

Vazquez Meza gladly receives the public, but because of the nature of scientific investigation at the Observatory, access is limited. "The aim of astronomy is to expand knowledge," he says.

Among his plans for the following years is to address the visits of citizens, students and the curious looking to enter the park. He wants to embrace the growing demand for visits.

What's It Got To Do With Me?

Some circuitry on cell phones, sensors for photo and video cameras, and inventions such as MRI in the area of ​​medicine, were "collateral" technical discoveries developed within the realm of astronomy.

WiFi network protocols and systems for global positioning devices, known as GPS, were developed from technology used in astronomy.

Fernando Avila Castro, NAO astronomer, explains that the development of technologies for space science has become so commonplace in our day-to-day devices that most people are ignorant of their debt to astronomy.

"In the case of photographs", explained Meza Roberto Vazquez, "astronomy was responsible for developing the sensors of digital cameras, as a requirement to generate more sensitivity than film roll material."

During the process of space study, other technologies were developed, such as infrared, or mechanical means to polish the mirrors of telescopes, or articulating robotic systems, some with patents registered to UNAM.

"Astronomy is the oldest science in human history and yet, it is still the science that drives and opens new paths for the future of humanity," reads an essay by Manuel Alvarez, current head of the National Astronomical Observatory.

Second of Two Parts by Saul D. Martinez

The investment is at least $217.5 million US and involves about five projects which embrace countries like France, Taiwan, United States, Spain and, of course, Mexico.

In one project, the system of telescopes CTA (Cherenkov Telescope Array) involve a total of 29 countries. This project includes the installation of 19 telescopes, with mirrors 10 and 24 meters in diameter, all in the San Pedro Martyr mountains.

Although still in the feasibility study stage, consideration of this project is in good spirits to the astronomical community in Mexico gives this project a lot of support, knowing it would be a huge advance in science.

Since the installation of the complex of telescopes in San Pedro Martir, he had not had an investment that important. At least 3 projects are expected to start operations from early 2016.

However, the increasing urban development in the state threatens to take away the San Pedro Martir's potential, as the delay in the implementation of laws and regulations to prevent light pollution continues.

Search the origin of the solar system, from Baja California

At the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, work continues on a project of global significance that is expected to be ready by early 2016: to document data about the origin of the solar system.

Through the TAOS II project, scientists seek clues using objects smaller than 1 kilometer in diameter, located beyond Neptune, on the outskirts of the solar system, difficult to detect by modern telescopes.

TAOS-II is the second phase of the project Transneptunian Automated Occultation Survey (Census Occultations Automated Transneptunianas), launched in Taiwan and represents one of the most important and historic projects for San Pedro Martir.

The project consists of the installation of three robotic telescopes with mirrors of 1.3 meters in diameter and with such sophisticated cameras that the detectors are still being developed in the laboratory.

It is expected to become operational by 2016, since the construction of observatories, near the already existing National Astronomical Observatory has already started. The approximate cost of this project is 13 million dollars.

The TAOS-II project is a collaboration between the Institute of Astronomy at the Academia Sinica of Taiwan, the Institute of Astronomy at UNAM, Korea's Yonsei University and the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard University.

Fernando Avila-Castro, an astronomer at the NAO, said Taiwan and the United States will provide most of the economic resources. Mexico bring its natural resource, which is the dark sky.

International projects

Other international projects with large investments will also be starting operations by 2016. "This marks the historical pattern for San Pedro Martir", said Meza Roberto Vazquez, coordinator of Outreach.

"From the privileged space for observation points, Mexico was the only without the development, which has not been used", consider also researcher at the National Astronomical Observatory.

From 2001 to 2012, the budget of the Institute of Astronomy and the NAO was 780,663,553 pesos, of which most was spent on salaries and benefits, lagging behind the infrastructure category.

One of the major projects is the Bootes 5 (Observer Burst and Transient Exploring Optical System), which consists of a robotic telescope of 60 centimeters in diameter, with an investment of 1.5 million dollars.

This project involves the participation of Mexico and Spain, and is expected to be running by early 2016.

Another project, also realized, is the svom-TFG (Space-Based Multi-Band Astronomical Objects Variable Monitor Follow Up Ground Telescopes), in which China, France and Mexico participate. The investment is $3 million, plus about $ 700,000 in civil engineering for construction. It is also expected to be in operation early next year..

The future

A larger project is in its early stage of planning and involves the participation of Mexico and the United States, with an investment of 100 million dollars.

It is building a telescope with a diameter of 6.5 meters, dubbed SPMT (San Pedro Martir Twins). "This telescope would provide higher resolution and data space exploration", says William Schuster, NAO researcher.

Another major project, still in feasibility studies, is the installation of a circuit of 19 telescopes in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, with diameters ranging from 10 meters to 24 meters.

This project will involve 29 countries with an expected investment of $100 million. It is estimated that once these projects are developed, data generation by the telescopes will increase to more than one terabyte daily.

Anticipating this, the Institute of Astronomy are installing a power supply network along with a fiber optic connection, terminating in the first stage, while the second stage is expected to close in late 2016.

Currently the data and information of the Astronomical Observatory is via satellite, and it is expected that the fiber optic transmission will be faster.

The law of heaven

Light pollution generated in the main cities of the state, such as Ensenada, Mexicali and San Felipe, because of their proximity to the Sierra de San Pedro Martir, threaten to undermine the potential of the National Astronomical Observatory.

In his experience and track record of 42 years as a researcher at the Observatory, William Schuster has witnessed the progress of city construction and with it, the growth of light pollution.

One of the main factors contributing to the growth of this light pollution and energy waste is due to the lack of review of the hardware used for illumination and regulations to make them more efficient.

Although Mexicali inaugurated in 2011 a regulation for the Prevention of Light Pollution, it has not yet established the Technical Committee for its implementation, but it is estimated that it will be accomplished this year.

Fernando Avila-Castro, astronomer and head of the Law of Heaven in the National Astronomical Observatory of San Pedro Martir, said there are chances that this year members of the Committee will take the oath.

Some documentation has been released on the candidates to be on the committee, including municipal officials, as well as the School of Engineering of the UABC, UNAM and the College of Architects.

Once the committee has been installed, you can formally protest to the members. The issues will then be addressed and specifications for the control of lighting can be mandated.

"Any light that is deflected or above the horizon is considered light pollution, which affects the work of astronomers, and is also wasted energy resources", commented Fernando Avila-Castro.

Even the wildlife is affected, such as the reproductive cycles of some birds or animals, and even migration and sleep depends on certain characteristics of the night, like the brightness of the moon or the darkness during its absence.

At night from the Astronomical Observatory, you can see the lights of Mexicali and San Felipe, as well as those of Ensenada. "The main problem for Mexicali," said Avila Castro, "is contamination and suspended material, wherein the reflected light surpasses the horizon."

In this situation the slow determination of municipal governments adds to the problem, which could affect the international competition that has won the global astronomical community's attention for the National Astronomical Observatory in the Sierra de San Pedro Martir.


"The installation of a telescope of 11 inches in diameter could soon be a reality in the National Park of San Pedro Martir," said Fernando Avila Castro, an astronomer at the NAO.

Although it is a project outside the National Astronomical Observatory, the institute will train the park staff in the use of the instrument. Ávila Castro explained that the National Park personnel will be charged with its administration, and that the telescope would be for tourism and visitors.

This would be one of the main attractions for the park in San Pedro Martir, with the aim of offering science and ecotourism to its visitors.