Telescope Project Strongly Endorsed by National Science Panel

Press Release From: Cornell University
Posted: Monday, August 16, 2010

To witness cosmic evolution and monitor galactic formation, a new telescope planned in Chile known as CCAT -- proposed and led by Cornell scientists -- has been endorsed by Astro2010, a national panel of scientists who determine priorities in astronomy and astrophysics for the next decade. The panel made its report available Aug. 13, 2010.

"With a broad scientific agenda, CCAT will enable studies of the evolution of galaxies across cosmic time, the formation of clusters of galaxies, the formation of stars in the Milky Way, the formation and evolution of planets, and the nature of objects in the outer solar system," according to the report.

At 25 meters (82 feet) in diameter, CCAT will operate at wavelengths shorter than one one-hundredth of an inch, which is longer than visible light but shorter than radio waves. Because this requires dry skies, the telescope will be built at an elevation of 18,400 feet in the Atacama desert in northern Chile, on the mountain known as Cerro Chajnantor.

"We've hit a home run," said Riccardo Giovanelli, professor of astronomy and CCAT Project Director. "CCAT will be a unique telescope at an exceptional site. I am particularly pleased that Astro2010 recommends a quick start for construction, so that all of us, especially in the U.S. community, will have access to its powerful survey capabilities soon after ALMA [Atacama Large Millimeter Array] is fully operational." ALMA is a $1.3 billion array of 66 radio telescopes, currently under construction in Chile.

To that end, the Astro 2010 panel recommended federal support for one-third of the construction cost for CCAT, which is estimated at $110 million.

One of CCAT's primary assets is a very large field of view, which will enable large-scale surveys of the sky. As CCAT discovers new sources, ALMA will follow up with images of those sources in unprecedented detail.

The CCAT project concept originated in the late 1990s with the exploration, by Cornell scientists and graduate students, of the astronomical potential of sites in the high deserts of the South American Andes, where the extremely arid climate and high altitude offer a unique opportunity to detect radiation normally blocked to ground-based telescopes by water vapor.

In 2004, the Cornell researchers joined forces with colleagues at the California Institute of Technology to plan and advocate for the project. Since then, additional partners have joined, including the University of Colorado, consortia of German and Canadian universities, and Associated Universities, Inc., a not-for-profit Washington, D.C., organization that operates national and international facilities in the U.S. and Chile, including ALMA.

(Originally CCAT stood for Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope. As the project matured, the acronym no longer reflected the growing list of partners involved. Eventually the instrument's name was changed to Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope -- the name used in the recent Astro2010 decadal survey report. But this is difficult to pronounce. To simplify, the acronym itself is now the proper name; the telescope's leadership just calls it CCAT.)

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