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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