Work to begin on “extreme altitude” telescope for probing dark universe

Construction is ready to begin on a new telescope, which will be based at the summit of a mountain in the Chilean desert. The telescope will allow scientists to explore the formation of stars and galaxies in the early universe.

The new telescope has been named the Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT-prime); after its location on top of the mountain Cerro Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert, Chile. Its optical capabilities – along with its impressive elevation – will allow for scientists to observe the universe with unprecedented precision.

CCAT-prime will overlook the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), an enormous array of telescopes expected to give insight into star birth in the early universe.

At an altitude of 5,612m, CCAT-prime will be the highest telescope of its kind. It is planned to be completed by 2021. A team of American, German and Canadian scientists are behind the project, which is headed by Cornell University. The telescope will be built by a German company, Vertex Antennentechnik GmbH.

“The CCAT partnership has now spent more than a decade exploring the possibility – and challenges – of building a state-of-the-art telescope at this amazing telescope site. During that time, technology and submillimeter science have advanced at a very rapid pace, and we are now ready to move forward to build a truly exciting telescope,” said Project Director Martha Haynes, Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy at Cornell University.

The telescope will have a diameter of six metres, and will be built with a novel optical design which allows large areas of sky to be scanned rapidly. The telescope’s altitude allows for skies in most directions to be observed all year.

Under low humidity conditions, CCAT-prime will be capable of detecting radiation with wavelengths as short as 0.2mm. Radiation in this submillimetre to millimetre range originates from gas and dust between stars, but can also originate from the afterglow of the Big Bang (cosmic microwave background).

These features will allow for “breathtaking new observations blocked at lower altitudes” says Professor Jürgen Stutzki, an astrophysicist based at the University of Cologne, Germany.

The telescope is specifically designed to observe the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect; this arises when high energy particles distort the cosmic microwave background. Using this effect, scientists will be able to explore in unprecedented detail the formation of stars in the Milky Way, nearby galaxies and the early universe.

CCAT-prime will also be used to deploy new quantum detectors capable of extremely sensitive observations. This could lead researchers closer to solving some of the great unknowns of cosmology, such as the nature of dark matter, which makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe.

“CCAT-prime’s large visual field and the dry atmosphere on Cerro Chajnantor allow for an unprecedented mapping of the sky,” explained Professor Frank Bertoldi, an astrophysicist based at the University of Bonn, Germany. “This is a decisive advantage for high-precision measurements of so-called cosmic background radiation, the radio echo of the Big Bang.”

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