March 17, 2004

Cornell, Caltech To Build Scope

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Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology have committed to collaborate on the planning stages of a 25-meter infrared telescope to be built in the heights of the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.

The announcement has thrilled Cornell astronomers; the telescope will be the largest of its kind, according to project director and astronomy professor Riccardo Giovanelli.

“Cornell is at the forefront of infrared astronomy and this [telescope] well help maintain that edge,” Giovanelli said.

The two universities have agreed to create an nine-member steering committee — four from each institution and chaired by Giovanelli — to begin analyzing factors that will affect of the telescope’s development and construction which according to Giovanelli will see “first light” in 2012.

This two million dollar initial planning phase will last 18 to 24 months as the steering committee investigates scientific, monetary, and logistical factors that will influence construction of the project.

The two institutions will share the estimated $60-million price tag and operation of the telescope. “The partnership between the two institutionsis seen as an evolving process,” Giovanelli said.

He added that he predicts that Cornell and Caltech, with whom C.U. has collaborated with in the past, will stay “wedded” for many years to come.

“Caltech is the very best partner we can find. They bring a cache of knowledge with themselves.” said Terry Herter, Cornell infrared astronomer.

According to infrared astronomer, Gordon Stacey Ph.D. ’85, because water vapor and the atmosphere severely obscure infrared light the “high and dry” Atacama Desert is the ideal location for the telescope.

The exceptionally dry site, north of Santiago by 1,000 miles, is more than 16,500 feet above sea level.

The lens/mirror of the domed telescope will be approximately 80 feet in diameter and fit neatly inside of a baseball diamond.

The telescope will peer into aspects of the sky that optical telescopes cannot. According to Stacey, it will be able to look through cosmic dustclouds as far back as 8 to ten billion years to watch the formations of early stars and galaxies.

The telescope will not be able to directly look at planets but will indirectly look at planet forming discs.

Infrared detection technology has advanced considerably in the last few years allowing C.U. and Caltech to consider this project when it would

have been impossible a decade ago, Stacey said.

“Infrared astronomy uses detector arrays which are rapidly evolving in size and degree of sophistication,” said Stacey.

“In analogy with digital cameras, current detector arrays can produce images of a few dozen pixels,” he added.

According to Stacey, the technology is on the verge of an “explosion” and reasonable estimates place the array of the Atacama telescope around the multiple 1000s, an increase by a power of ten. A similar revolution occurred in the world of optical detectors a generation ago.

In addition to being the largest telescope of its kind, according to Stacey, it will also “by far [be] the most sensitive sub-millimeter telescope in the world.”

It will be 30 times more sensitive than current sub-millimeter telescopes, like the 10-meter Caltech Submillimeter Observatory operated atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

Archived article by Michael Margolis