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US and UK unite for $100m telescope

Atacama, here we come

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Scientists in the UK and the US have joined forces to build a new $100m, 25 metre infrared telescope in the high Chilean desert. The latest addition to the team, the University of Colorado at Boulder, signed on late last week.

The Cornell Caltech Atacama Telescope, or CCAT, is designed to work alongside the proposed Atacama Large Millimeter Array, ALMA. This is also planned for construction in Chile. The idea is that CCAT will scan the skies for interesting things, and ALMA will be able to zoom in for a closer look.

The telescope should be completed by 2013, when researchers will turn its gaze towards the outer reaches of the solar system, to stellar nurseries, and even distant galaxies. When it is finished, it will be the largest and most precise ground-based infrared observatory in the world.

It will also be the highest - being located in the Atacama desert, some 18,000 feet above sea level. Water vapour is the enemy when dealing with the sub-millimetre section of the electro-magnetic spectrum in which the scope will set its sights. This makes Atacama the idea location for the 'scope, because as well as its altitude, it is extremely dry.

Associate Professor Jason Glenn from the University of Colorado commented: "This facility will enable us to study the earliest stages of star and galaxy formation, as well as the initial conditions of the solar systems like our own. [It] will be up to 30 times more sensitive than existing sub-millimeter telescopes, allowing us to look back in time to when galaxies first appeared."

Over half the cash needed for the project has already been secured from major backers, but now the research institutions, including CalTech, Cornell, and the UK's Astronomy Technology Centre are ramping up efforts to find another $50m. ®

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