ITHACA, N.Y., March 10 -- Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have signed an agreement to collaborate on the planning for a 25-meter infrared telescope high in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile.
The universities will focus on the first phase of telescope development, said Riccardo Giovanelli, a professor of astronomy at Cornell and the project's director. During the $2 million study phase, Cornell and Caltech researchers will outline the technical and financial resources required to construct the new telescope.
The estimated total cost of the telescope will be $60 million and is expected to see "first light" in 2012. The Atacama site, about 1000 miles north of Santiago, is more than 5000 meters (16,500 feet) above sea level. The Atacama telescope will be sensitive to light with wavelengths longer than 200 microns, or 0.2 millimeters. These wavelengths (called far-infrared, or sub-millimeter) are too long to be perceived by the human eye but are shorter than the waves that transmit radio and television signals.
The high Atacama Desert will position the telescope above most of the water vapor in the atmosphere, making the site one of the best on Earth for far-infrared astronomy. It will be "by far the most sensitive sub-millimeter telescope in the world," said Cornell astronomy professor Gordon Stacey. Because the telescope will be so sensitive -- 30 times more sensitive than current sub-millimeter telescopes -- it will be able to probe star formation during the epoch of galaxy formation, the time in the universe's history at which galaxies first appeared, he said.
Cornell and Caltech researchers will also use the new telescope to study the origin of the large-scale structure of the universe, a filamentary web that Giovanelli describes as a "bowl of spaghetti." Also on the telescope's agenda are circumstellar disks, the rotating pancakes of dust and gas in which planets form. These planetary nurseries are shrouded from optical telescopes by light-absorbing dust, but they emit an infrared glow that could reveal hidden planets.
Giovanelli said the telescope will take advantage of the coming of age of new sub-millimeter detector technology. Called large-format bolometer arrays, these detectors will sensitively measure radiation collected by the telescope over tens of thousands of pixels. Current detectors have only a few hundred pixels; just as with digital cameras or computer monitors, more pixels create sharper images.
The study phase is expected to be complete in two years or less, followed by engineering development and construction.
For more information, visit: www.cornell.edu