August 23, 2007

Profs Design First-of-Kind Telescope

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Astronomers at Cornell and the California Institute of Technology are partnering up with astronomers from universities around the world to build a telescope in Chile.
The Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope, which will emit waves at sub-millimeter frequencies, will be the largest sub-millimeter telescope in the world once it is completed in 2013. The telescope will use the sub-millimeter technology to view objects far in outer space.
Since light takes time to travel, the further one looks away from the earth’s galaxy, the Milky Way, the older the light will be. According to Prof. Gordon Stacey, astronomy, Ph.D. ’85, chair of the project’s instrumentation group, this means that the CCAT will be able to “look for the earliest galaxies,” including those that are approximately 12 billion years old, formed only one billion years after the Big Bang.
Viewing such galaxies will enable scientists to have a better idea of how they were formed, as well as a better understanding of the structure of the universe, concepts that are important in the field of fundamental physics. Gordon said that tracing the history of star evolution could also help scientists understand “how [people] came to be.”
In addition to probing the earliest galaxies, the telescope can detect stars as they form. It can also aid astronomers studying nearby objects. The CCAT could add to current knowledge of the Kuiper Belt, a group of icy bodies left over from the formation of the earth’s solar system.
Situated on a mountain 18,500 feet above sea level in the Atacama Desert, the CCAT will be at the highest and driest point of any telescope in the world. Such height and dryness are necessary to maximize the cosmic radiation that the telescope will detect by reducing the amount of water vapor in the air.
The telescope will have mirrors to collect and focus the light from cosmic radiation. This light will be converted into signals, which can be read by a computer and built into an image that can be seen on a computer screen.
Although the telescope is in Chile, astronomers at Cornell and its partners at the University of Colorado at Boulder and universities in Canada and Great Britain will be able to control and use the telescope over the Internet.
The advantage of Cornell’s participation in the CCAT project is that rather than being a “minor player in a large project,” Cornell can “position [itself] in a unique way,” said Prof. Terry Herter, astronomy, the CCAT’s project scientist.
According to Herter, the relatively small number of partners gives Cornell lots of “private access” and time for projects that professors, undergraduates and graduate students will complete.
CCAT Director Prof. Riccardo Giovanelli, astronomy, said that to him, the project fulfills his belief that “every sea of scientists should [look] to leave a legacy for the younger ones.”
He added that he hopes to maintain Cornell’s strong reputation in the field of astronomy, and considers the project an “initiative to attract top-notch scientists and students” to the University.
Cornell is expected to provide about a quarter of the $100 million needed to develop and build the telescope. So far, $10.5 million has come from a Cornell alumnus.
The astronomers involved are hopeful that the rest of the money will be raised. “Cornell has been very supportive so far,” Herter said, “and we look forward to [its] continued support.”