New Telescope in Chile to Witness Birth of Galaxies
Thursday, December 23, 2010 Located at 18,400 feet above sea level in Chile's Atacama Desert, the new CCAT observatory will detect radiation normally blocked to ground-based telescopes by water vapor in the atmosphere.
Credit: CCAT/Cornell

A new telescope facility in Chile is being designed to probe the universe for galaxies and young stars.

The Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT), being developed by astronomers at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., will be built in northern Chile on a mountain in the Andes, at 18,400 feet (over 5,600 meters) above sea level. The telescope will be used by astronomers around the world to answer fundamental questions on the origin of galaxies and the early evolution of the universe.

"The epoch of galaxy formation that CCAT is going to explore in a unique way is when most of the interesting things in the universe started happening, as far as we are concerned," Riccardo Giovanelli, Cornell professor of astronomy and principal investigator for CCAT, said in a release.

"The carbon in our bodies, the silicon in our computers, the gold in gifts we give a girlfriend or boyfriend ? all these things were made with stuff being produced when our galaxies were born," Giovanelli explained. "Understanding that process is understanding how the universe became sophisticated enough in a chemical way to produce things we enjoy now, like black-and-white movies and the stuff we use to build telescopes."

In a recent announcement, Frederick Young, a Cornell alumnus and former director of the Cornell Society of Engineers, and a longtime supporter of the project, pledged $11 million toward the design and construction of the CCAT telescope. [Earth's Most Important Telescopes]

Cornell Provost Kent Fuchs called CCAT "a great adventure because of the spectacular science, as we create this cosmic surveyor; and it's a great adventure because of the scale."

The 25-meter (82 feet) in diameter CCAT will employ large cameras and spectrometers to survey the sky at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths of light, which will provide an unprecedented combination of sensitivity and resolution across a wide field of view.

With its ability to conduct large-scale surveys of the sky, the project will complement the international Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) telescope, now under construction and also located in Chile's Atacama desert. The facilities will be able to work in conjunction ? as CCAT discovers new sources, ALMA will be able to follow up with detailed images.

In August, the National Research Council highly recommended the expansion of the CCAT project, and further recommended federal support for one-third of its construction cost and operations. The telescope also received endorsement from the Astro2010 panel, a national panel appointed by the National Academy of Sciences that will determine priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for the next decade.

The CCAT is a joint project of Cornell University, the California Institute of Technology with its Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., the University of Colorado, a Canadian consortium led by the University of British Columbia, the University of Cologne and the University of Bonn in Germany, as well as Associated Universities Inc., a nonprofit organization that operates national and international facilities, and the U.K. Astronomy Technology Center.