A breakthrough telescope

In 2021 astronomers will dive deeper into outer space with the use of a 23 million dollar telescope in one of the world’s highest deserts located in Chile. Martha Haynes, Cornell University Professor of Astronomy, joins Hari Sreenivasan via Google Hangout to discuss the project.


In 2021 astronomers will dive deeper into outer space with the use of a 23 million dollar telescope in one of the world's highest deserts located in Chile.

Joining us via Google Hangout is Cornell University professor of astronomy Martha Hayes, who is helping to lead the project.

So what's going to make this this is called The CCAT telescope what's going to make this telescope different?

Well there are a couple of things about this telescope.

The first thing is that it's located at eighteen thousand four hundred feet elevation and you could drive a truck there which is pretty exciting from the perspective of being able to service it and fix it and build it.

But also it makes use of our wavelength range where which is relatively novel.

The submillimeter wavelength range which is why you have to be at such a very high sight and it's designed to be a telescope that allows us to map the whole sky really fast.

It's a special kind of telescope and we're really excited to be able to use it to do some very specific cosmology and galactic ecology study.

Galactic ecology you have my curiosity what does that mean?

Martha Haynes: ell what that means is we want to try and understand how stars and planets form in the in our Milky Way galaxy.

So when I say galactic I mean the Milky Way galaxy and some of the other nearby galaxies that are very close to us that you can see with the naked eye if you're in the southern hemisphere ones that we're not very familiar with here in the northern hemisphere but the southern hemisphere viewers get to see all the time.

And we want to try and understand how you get gas and dust to coagulate so to speak and then to form stars and planetary systems.

So give me an example of the sort of the physical structural differences if say might have visited the Griffith Observatory in L.A.

or was sitting in Oakland.

Is that is the size of the lens or the aperture bigger or is it just the fact that it's at this amazingly clear sky place down in South America?

Well in terms of the structure of the telescope this a submillimeter telescope is a kind of radio telescope.

And in fact it doesn't have a lense.

It actually has two mirrors what we call the primary and the secondary and primary mirror is about six meters or about 20 feet in diameter.

And then the secondary mirror is almost big it's about five meters in diameter.

And then they sit inside an enclosure which doesn't really look like a doormat it more looks like a refrigerator from the outside but you open it up and then the two mirrors are visible.

And so it really doesn't observe stars and galaxies the way we see pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Instead it's designed to look for radiation that comes from very cold parts of the universe and dust and objects that you can't necessarily see with an optical telescope.

So it just looks different kind of science.

Now you've been working towards this telescopes existence for what 20 years now.

I mean it's been a long process?

Building any breakthrough telescope takes a long time.

The first thing you have to do is you have to conceive the idea.

In fact 20 years ago when my colleagues here at Cornell first started exploring the possibility of building a telescope like this we didn't know how to build a telescope like this.

And we didn't know how to build a camera that had lots of pixels that could operate in this wavelength range and so really it was a dream.

You know I think of telescopes sometimes as time machines that are able to go back and show us a specific moment a long long long long long time ago before we were around.

How far back in time can this one go?

Well we'll be able to look back to the very first few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang.

So we'll be looking back almost 13.7 Billion years.

Now we also see some radiation from closer than that but we'll be able to look back to those first photons which were emitted a few hundred thousand years after the Big Bang.

And what's interesting about this telescope is it's also designed to use that picture of the universe that very early infant picture of the universe.

It will already carry the fingerprints if you want of what happened before that.

And that's that very precise measurement of that signal that we will we hope will tell us about the very first tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang.

What do we learn from the first tiny fraction of a second of a big bang that helps us gain our understanding of how and why we are and perhaps what's happening us as we go forward?

Well what we really want is a whole picture of how are the universe began so to speak.

What really did happen what other the physical process sees that led to the expansion of the universe?

Why the universe today looks the way it does, why it has more electrons than the anti-matter positrons, why we understand all of the details of the universe today and it's it's a very complicated story and it allows us to quote to really try and understand the whole picture of how physics and cosmology and astrophysics fit together to give us the universe that we see today we like to be able to tell a better story than we can right now.

In this day and age does a scientist or a researcher have to be present in Chile next to where the telescopes computers are or can a lot of this be done remotely and you essentially parcel time and access to the telescope in different ways?

The function was it will be designed to be operated remotely now but most of the remote operation will be conducted from a lower altitude site near the town of San Pedro de Atacama which is about an hour and a half drive from where the telescope actually is because you don't really want to be working at eighteen thousand four hundred feet.

But it's really hard to breathe up there.

Furthermore the data will be collected and then it will be transferred back to Germany, Canada and here at Cornell and that's where the real processing and interpretation of that data will take place.

Martha Haynes of Cornell University thanks so much for joining us.

Well thank you.