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Seven Canadian universities are involved in the Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope project, seen in an artist's rendering. (Cornell University/Cornell University)
Seven Canadian universities are involved in the Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope project, seen in an artist's rendering. (Cornell University/Cornell University)

Space

Astronomers hope telescope unlocks secrets of universe Add to ...

Humans have landed on the moon and walked in space, but decades of exploration have revealed few clues about the origins of the universe. Scientists hope a powerful new telescope - the largest, highest and most precise of its kind - will change that.

Called the Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope (CCAT), it will be placed on the arid plateau of a northern Chilean mountain, about 5,600 metres above sea level in the Atacama Desert. Conceived in the late 1990s, the U.S.-led cosmic project has taken on a major Canadian flavour.

Seven universities from four provinces have joined the international effort to build the submillimetre wavelength telescope. Their involvement ensures Canadian astronomers a front-row seat to one of the best views of space.

In turn, they hope information gathered by the massive scope will help them unlock more of the universe's secrets, from how the first galaxies and solar systems formed to the true nature of dark matter.

"We're really trying to understand our history, trying to understand the origins of the universe," said University of Waterloo astronomy and physics professor Michel Fich, leader of the Canadian part of the CCAT project.

"We live in this galaxy and we really don't know a lot about it."

What is CCAT?

With a diameter of 25 metres, the Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope is designed to capture a very wide view of space. It won't be the world's first submillimetre telescope, but it will be substantially larger and more sensitive than the others. Outfitted with a state-of-the-art camera, CCAT is expected to map the sky 1,000 times faster, and with better resolution, than the best detector in the world, SCUBA-2. These enhanced sky surveys will complement the work of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), a telescope with more than 60 high-precision radio antennas now under construction at a lower level on the same Chilean mountain. Together, the two telescopes will be able to produce images containing unprecedented detail.

How much will the telescope cost?

The final price tag is uncertain, but the most recent estimate puts CCAT's cost at $140-million (U.S.) In comparison, ALMA is pegged at more than $1-billion. Cornell University in New York State and the California Institute of Technology, the project's early proponents, have raised about $30-million. Dr. Fich said the consortium of Canadian universities has committed to raising one-quarter of the project's cost. He hopes construction will begin in April, 2013.

Why in Chile?

In the late 1990s, researchers with Cornell University iidentified the South American Andes as an opportune site for high-powered telescopes. With an extremely arid climate and high altitude, water vapour is limited in the Andes. This combination allows better detection of radiation.

Why are Canadian universities involved?

International collaborations are needed to build such massive telescopes because of the cost. The CCAT project already included two German universities and four U.S. institutions. However, with the participation of seven Canadian schools, a number that could soon grow to 10, Dr. Fich noted the country's contingent has become a major force behind the telescope project. Canadian scientists will be guaranteed input and access to vital information. "Astronomy is one Canada's great strengths," Dr. Fich said.

What cosmic secrets do scientists hope to unlock?

The telescope will be able to detect hundreds of thousands of primeval galaxies, dating back 10 billion to 12 billion years ago. This will help scientists study the evolution of galaxies. Other scientific priorities include developing a better understanding of how stars and planets form. Scientists expect the telescope to provide the first complete census of star formation. University of Calgary's René Plume, an associate professor of astronomy and physics, likens CCAT to a big light bucket. "Bigger is better in astronomy because you get finer and finer details," Dr. Plume said.

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