Public Release:  U. of Colorado to partner on $100 million telescope in Chilean desert

University to join forces with Cornell, Cal Tech and United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre

University of Colorado at Boulder

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IMAGE: Proposed Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope view more

Credit: Cornell, Caltech, CU-Boulder

The University of Colorado at Boulder has signed an initial partnership agreement to participate in the design and construction of a 25-meter, far-infrared telescope that will be located in the Chilean desert to probe the distant galaxies, stellar nurseries and outer reaches of the solar system.

CU-Boulder and the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, Scotland, will collaborate with the two major partners, Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology, on the $100 million project, slated for completion in 2013. The telescope will be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile at an altitude of about 18,000 feet and will be the largest, most precise and highest astronomical facility of its kind in the world, said Associate Professor Jason Glenn of the astrophysical and planetary sciences department who is spearheading the CU-Boulder portion of the project.

The Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope, or CCAT, will gather radiation from sub-millimeter wavelengths, which are longer than visible and infrared light but shorter than radio waves, said Glenn. "This facility will enable us to study the earliest stages of star and galaxy formation, as well as the initial conditions of the solar systems like our own," he said.

The project partners are raising the estimated $100 million needed for the construction of the telescope through private donations, about half of which already has been committed by major partners. Fundraising by CU-Boulder, which has just begun, will require roughly $5 million in capital toward the cost of the facility, Glenn said.

"We are pleased to be a partner in this exciting new venture," said CU-Boulder Chancellor G.P. "Bud" Peterson. "We believe this new telescope facility will help to revolutionize astronomy and open up new windows on the origin and evolution of the galaxies, stars and planets in our universe. "

Technology for the telescope's instruments already is being developed at CU-Boulder. Glenn's lab at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy has received a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build a state-of-the-art camera using an array of 600 superconducting detectors, each of which will be able to measure four colors simultaneously. The NSF grant is being matched by a grant to Cal Tech from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation in San Francisco.

CU-Boulder will collaborate with scientists and engineers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology -- which has one of the premier sub-millimeter detector research groups in the world -- on instrument development, he said.

Since sub-millimeter waves are absorbed by water vapor in Earth's atmosphere and are difficult to detect from the ground, the research team chose the Atacama Desert -- one of the highest, driest places on Earth -- for the telescope. Blocked from coastal moisture by the Andes, parts of the Atacama Desert have been reported to be rainless for decades at a stretch. The region is considered the premier locale in the world for sub-millimeter astronomy, Glenn said.

"This telescope will be up to 30 times more sensitive than existing sub-millimeter telescopes, allowing us to look back in time to when galaxies first appeared," he said. "When we observe distant galaxies, we are observing the past because light leaving young galaxies has taken billions of years to reach us."

Due to the particular spectral "signature" of galaxies in the sub-millimeter range, those forming just a billion or so years after the big Bang will appear to be as bright as less distant galaxies, allowing astronomers to probe their earliest formation in the universe, Glenn said.

CCAT is being designed to work in concert with the proposed Atacama Large Millimeter Array, or ALMA, also in Chile, he said. ALMA consists of a set of mobile radio antennas similar to the Very Large Array in New Mexico that can be reconfigured to target distant astronomical galaxies and stars in sub-millimeter wavelengths. Once CCAT locates particularly compelling astronomical targets, ALMA will be used to "zoom in" for further, more refined observations, he said.

"This is a great opportunity for CU-Boulder, and this partnership means that we can help lead astronomers in a relatively new and exciting research direction," said Vice Chancellor for Research Susan Avery. "And it is a great opportunity for our students to be right there, doing research at the beginning."

The new telescope will be a workhorse instrument for astronomers for decades because about half of the light emanating from distant stars and galaxies reaches Earth at far-infrared and sub-millimeter wavelengths, he said. "Newly forming stars and solar systems are surrounded by gas and dust, which block the escape of visible light but which radiate at these wavelengths," Glenn said.

A number of faculty and students at CASA will be involved in the CCAT effort, including CASA Director Webster Cash and Professors John Bally, Jeremy Darling and Michael Shull.

"This is fabulous opportunity for the university," said Shull. "What we need now is a $5 million investment in the world's largest telescope that will be used in a largely unexplored portion of light in the universe."

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Contact: Jim Scott, (303) 492-3114

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