Grand design

World’s largest submillimeter telescope to be built in Chile

U de Chile teams up with U.S. institutes to construct the largest single antenna submillimeter telescope near site of world’s biggest submillimeter array ALMA.

Friday, June 14, 2013 Category: Education
ALMA antennae. Photo by ESO. ALMA antennae. Photo by ESO.


The inauguration of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is still fresh in the memory, and yet plans are already well advanced for another record breaking observatory to be built in northern Chile.

A consortium of fifteen U.S. based universities and institutes, including Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has entered into a cooperative agreement with the Universidad de Chile to build a 25 m diameter single antenna telescope that will be more powerful than any other of its kind.

The Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT) is to be constructed atop its namesake, adjacent to the ALMA site at about 18,000 ft (5,480 m) above sea level.

Cornell Astronomy Professor and Project Manager Riccardo Giovanelli spoke of the Atacama Desert’s ideal conditions for astronomy when discussing the CCAT site.

“[The Atacama] delivers the best skies of all the driest, high-altitude deserts on Earth,” Giovanelli said. “We’re going higher than anyone else has gone. Basically we want to go as high as you can go by driving a truck.”

Design planning for CCAT began in 2004, and the initiative’s first board meeting in Santiago, as well as a visit to the site, happened last month. According to Giovanelli, the telescope is set to be completed in 2017.

The plan is for CCAT’s 25 m dish to work in cooperation with ALMA’s 66 strong array of 23 ft (7 m) and 40 ft (12 m) antennas. CCAT’s highly sensitive “wide angle” lens will be employed to seek out areas of interest at unprecedented speed and precision, afterwhich further in-depth study of said areas will be conducted with ALMA’s unrivalled “zoom lens” capability.

Cornell cites CCAT’s primary objectives as: research on the formation and evolution of galaxies and the growth of chemical complexity throughout the history of the universe, the buildup of clusters of galaxies, the processes of star and planet formation in the Milky Way galaxy, and Kuiper Belt objects in the outer reaches of the solar system.

Study of the millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths (those that exist between infrared and radio waves on the electromagnetic spectrum) has transformed astronomy in recent times. Cool-temperature objects - such as the dust created by the birth and death of stars on the edge of the universe - give off these wavelengths, allowing astronomers to analyze matter formerly invisible to us.

Without even working at full capacity, in a few hours during one study ALMA made as many discoveries of early galaxies as were made in the decade prior to its opening.

Due to its almost non-existent humidity and clear skies, northern Chile is the world’s premier location for astronomy. Chile is home to almost half the world’s telescope infrastructure, and this is set to increase to over two thirds in the next decade.