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World’s biggest telescope a step closer

Artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope

Artist's impression of the European Extremely Large Telescope

A TELESCOPE TO DWARF ALL OTHERS is on the road to being fully approved in mid-2012, with much of the funding secured and work commencing on the road that will provide access to the remote site in Chile.

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) will be an optical/infrared telescope with a main mirror 39.3 metres wide. Today’s current largest telescopes have mirrors around the 10-metre mark.

The European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) huge, 1.802 billion Euro facilitywill be built at Cerro Armazones in Chile’s high Atacama desert.

Artist's impression of the E-ELT alongside the Sydney Opera House

Artist's impression of the E-ELT alongside the Sydney Opera House, to give an idea of scale.

The initial work approved this week includes preparations for the road that will link to the site, and commencement of work on one on the most challenging parts of the telescope…the M4 mirror, an “adaptive optics” mirror that will help to remove the blurring effect of Earth’s atmosphere.

“The E-ELT is starting to become reality,” says the ESO Director General, Tim de Zeeuw. “However, with a project of this size it is expected that approval of the extra expenditure will take time … preparatory work must start now in order for the project to be ready for a full start of construction in 2012.”

Final approval for the E-ELT project is expected to be granted next year.

This video from last year explains more about the amazing E-ELT and the site at which it will be built:

Story by Jonathan Nally. Images and video courtesy ESO.

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High and dry – Astronomy in the Atacama

IN THE PURSUIT OF PRISTINE SKIES, ESO—the European Southern Observatory organisation—operates its telescopes far beyond Europe, in the remote and arid landscape of the Atacama Desert in Chile. This ESOcast episode explains why astronomers like to get high and dry.

Adapted from information issued by ESO. Still image courtesy G. Hüdepohl (atacamaphoto.com) / ESO.

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Dish complex will study ‘cool’ cosmos

First eight ALMA dishes

The first eight ALMA dishes have already been pressed into service, 5,000 metres above mean sea level on the Chajnantor plateau in Chile. They are seen here in September 2010.

A GIANT NETWORK OF RADIO DISHES is taking shape high in the deserts of the Atacama Plateau in Chile. Known as the Atacama Large Millimetre/Submillimetre Array (ALMA), it will be used to study the ‘coolest’ parts of the cosmos.

When completed, ALMA will comprise 66, twelve-metre-diameter antennae, each weighing about 95 tonnes. The dishes will be electronically joined to form one single, huge telescope that picks up millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths from deep space.

These wavelengths are affected by water vapour in the atmosphere, which explains the choice of the high and dry site in the Atacama.

As each dish arrives from the manufacturer, it is moved on a special transporter from the Site Erection Facility (SEF) where it is assembled and tested, to the Operations Support Facility (OSF), where it is fitted with its extremely sensitive radio receivers and cooling systems.

Artist's impression of the finished ALMA

Artist's impression of the finished ALMA network of 66 dishes.

Both the SEF and OSF are at an elevation of 2,900 metres above mean sea level, which seems high enough. But the antennae’s final resting place is the observatory site on the Chajnantor plateau, which is at 5,000 metres elevation.

Cool cosmos

ALMA’s targets are the ‘coolest’ components of the universe…the tiny particles of interstellar dust and gas molecules from which everything—stars, planets and galaxies—formed and are still forming.

The array will be able to peer back in time to reveal some of the earliest galaxies, when the universe was only a few billion years old. It’ll also provide information on the formation of stars and planetary systems in the closer and more recent universe.

ALMA dish on a transporter vehicle

The ALMA antennae each weigh about 95 tonnes, and are moved around on giant transporter vehicles.

The dishes are state-of-the-art, with surface panels built and aligned to a precision of less than the thickness of a human hair. Theoretically, ALMA could spot a golf ball 15 kilometres away.

Conditions on the Chajnantor plateau are tough, with strong sunlight and fierce winds. None of the dishes have protective domes, and the air temperature can drop to –20 degrees Celsius.

ALMA is an international facility, being a partnership of Europe, North America and East Asia working collaboratively with the host country, Chile. Twenty-five antennae are being provided by Europe, 25 by North America and 16 by East Asia.

Story by Jonathan Nally, copyright SpaceInfo.com.au. Images courtesy ALMA and (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Guarda.

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New telescope is top priority

Artist’s rendition of the CCAT telescope

Artist’s rendition of the 25-metre CCAT telescope planned to be built high in Chile’s Atacama Desert to view the formation of galaxies, stars and planets.

  • CCAT telescope will study the first stars and galaxies
  • Will observe at far-infrared and submillimetre wavelengths
  • Will be the biggest and highest-sited telescope of its kind

A planned telescope in Chile has been named by the US National Research Council as the top priority for the coming decade for mid-sized, ground-based telescopes.

The 25-metre-diameter, US$110 million facility known as CCAT will be able to probe distant galaxies and stellar nurseries at far-infrared and submillimetre wavelengths.

The telescope would be a workhorse for astronomers, because about half of the light emanating from distant stars and galaxies reaches Earth at far-infrared and submillimetre wavelengths—longer than visible and infrared light but shorter than radio waves.

Like many telescopes, CCAT’s wavelength range is absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, which is why such telescopes are sited as high as it practicably possible to get above most of the air layers. In this case, the facility would be built in the Atacama Desert in Chile at about 18,500 feet above sea level. It will be the largest, highest and most precise telescope of its kind.

The telescope effort involves two major partners—Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology—and three other partners, including the University of Colorado at Boulder and Canadian and German universities.

The telescope was selected as part of the Astro2010 Decadal Survey report produced by the US National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and which recommends priorities for the most important scientific and technical activities every 10 years in astronomy and astrophysics.

CCAT Site Instruments

Automated instruments are gathering measurements for site evaluation at 5,600m elevation near the summit of Cerro Chajnantor, Chile.

“With a broad scientific agenda, CCAT will enable studies of the evolution of galaxies across cosmic time, the formation of clusters of galaxies, the formation of stars in the Milky Way, the formation and evolution of planets, and the nature of objects in the outer Solar System,” according to the report.

State-of-the-art facility

“We are very excited about this selection because it means this telescope now has a very high probability of being built,” said Associate Professor Jason Glenn, who is spearheading the CU-Boulder portion of the CCAT project.

“This state-of-the-art facility will allow us to look back in time to when galaxies first appeared in the universe.”

The Astro2010 committee is recommending that the US National Science Foundation provide one-third of the cost of the project. The CCAT project partners also are raising funds for the telescope, some of which already have been gathered through private donations and university contributions.

Technology for the CCAT telescope’s instruments already is being developed at CU-Boulder. Glenn’s lab at the Centre for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy is building a state-of-the-art camera using an array of 2,400 superconducting detectors. CU-Boulder is collaborating with the California Institute of Technology on the effort.

“This facility will enable us to study the earliest stages of star and galaxy formation, as well as the initial conditions of solar systems like our own,” Glenn said.

Adapted from information issued by University of Colorado / CCAT / G. Gull (Cornell).

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Gigantic telescope a step closer

Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope

Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will combine seven 8.4-metre primary mirror segments into the equivalent of a 24.5-metre telescope. To be built in Chile, construction will start in 2012.

  • Giant Magellan Telescope to be built in Chile
  • University of Chicago joins the team
  • Will see 100 times fainter than Hubble

The University of Chicago has joined the effort to build the world’s largest telescope, as the quest continues for answers to some the deepest mysteries of modern cosmology.

The University will provide US$50 million to become a founding partner in the project called the Giant Magellan Telescope, which will be able to produce images of objects 100 times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope can detect.

“The University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics is among the best astronomy and astrophysics departments in the country and worldwide,” said Wendy Freedman, director of the Carnegie Observatories and chairperson of the GMT Organisation.

Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope

Institutions from the USA, Australia and Korea are members of the Giant Magellan Telescope consortium.

“This is exactly the kind of partner we need to make this ambitious telescope project a success.”

The other founding GMT partners are the Carnegie Institution for Science, University of Texas at Austin, Harvard University, Australian National University, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, University of Arizona, Texas A&M University, Astronomy Australia Ltd, and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute.

Construction of the GMT will begin at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile, in 2012 and will take approximately seven years to complete.

“Chicago has a great tradition in exploring the universe,” said Robert Kirshner, Harvard’s Clowes Professor of Science.

“At the founding of the university, Chicago built the world’s largest telescope at Yerkes, Chicago trained Edwin Hubble, the leading astronomer of the 20th century, and now they’re looking to be leaders in the field for the 21st century.”

GMT will tackle the big questions

UChicago also has committed an additional US$14 million to join the related consortium that currently operates the twin 6.5-metre Magellan Telescopes at Las Campanas. These arrangements guarantee that UChicago scientists will receive a share of observing time on the telescopes, a critical component of pioneering cosmological research.

Artist's impression of the Giant Magellan Telescope

The Giant Magellan Telescope will be able to study astronomical objects 100 times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope can see.

These telescopes are necessary tools for prying loose answers to the mysteries of dark energy and dark matter, two of the biggest questions confronting modern cosmologists.

Dark energy is a repulsive force of unknown origin that is accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Dark matter is a material of unknown composition that is far more plentiful in the universe than the ordinary matter of everyday life.

Theories and observations have convinced most cosmologists that dark energy and dark matter exist in huge amounts, but their precise nature has remained elusive.

The $700 million GMT will combine seven 8.4-metre primary mirror segments into the equivalent of a 24.5-metre telescope (nearly 82 feet). The first mirror, now under development at the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab at the University of Arizona, will be completed late this year.

Adapted from information issued by the University of Chicago / GMT Consortium.

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Andes and Atacama from space

Astronaut photograph of the Andes and Atacama Desert in Chile

Astronaut photograph of the Andes mountains and Atacama Desert in Chile, shows the dramatic variety of geological features in this part of the world.

  • Andes mountains seen from space
  • Line of young volcanoes
  • Salt-crusted dry lakes

This panorama was taken by an astronaut looking southeast across the South American continent when the International Space Station (ISS) was almost directly over the Atacama Desert near Chile’s Pacific coast.

The high plains (3,000 to 5,000 metres, or 13,000 to 19,000 feet) of the Andes Mountains, also known as the Puna, appear in the foreground, with a line of young volcanoes (dashed line) facing the much lower Atacama Desert (1,000 to 2,000 metres elevation).

Several salt-crusted dry lakes (known as salars in Spanish) occupy the basins between major thrust faults in the Puna. Salar de Arizaro (foreground) is the largest of the dry lakes in this view.

The Atlantic Ocean coastline, where Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires sits along the Río de la Plata, is dimly visible at image top left.

Near image centre, the transition (solid white line overlay) between two distinct geological zones, the Puna and the Sierras Pampeanas, creates a striking landscape contrast. Compared to the Puna, the Sierras Pampeanas mountains are lower in elevation and have fewer young volcanoes. Sharp-crested ridges are separated by wide, low valleys in this region. The Salinas Grandes—ephemeral shallow salt lakes—occupies one of these valleys.

See the full-screen version of the photograph here.

Colours reflect climatic regions

The general colour change from reds and browns in the foreground to blues and greens in the upper part of the image reflects the major climatic regions: the deserts of the Atacama and Puna versus the grassy plains of central Argentina, where rainfall is sufficient to promote lush prairie grass, known locally as the pampas. The Salinas Grandes mark an intermediate, semiarid region.

What accounts for the changes in topography between the Puna and the Sierras Pameanas? The geology of this part of the Andes is a result of the eastward subduction of the Nazca tectonic plate underneath South America

Seismic data suggest that beneath the Puna, the Nazca Plate is dipping down steeply. Beneath the Sierras Pampeanas zone, however, the underlying Nazca plate is almost horizontal.

The levelness may be due to the subduction of a submarine mountain range known as the Juan Fernández Ridge. In the simplest terms, ridges are topographic highs that are difficult to stuff down into the subduction zone, and that has profound effects on the volcanism and structures of the overlying South America plate.

Astronaut photograph provided by the ISS Crew Earth Observations experiment and Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Centre. Text adapted from information issued by M. Justin Wilkinson, NASA-JSC.