March 18, 2014

Birth of a Telescope

Space exploration the UMass Way
The Large Millimeter Telescope atop Sierra Negra, Mexico’s fifth-highest peak, a 15,000-foot inactive volcano 150 miles east of Mexico City.

As the world’s oldest science, astronomy has long fired the imaginations of those seeking answers to existential questions about our origins. From the observations of the ancient Mayans and Chinese, who laid the foundations of astronomy, to today’s space explorers, scientists are much closer to deciphering the mysteries of the universe. On the frontiers of discovery are UMass Amherst astronomers, who in the summer commissioned the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT), in Mexico, the biggest millimeter-wave telescope ever built.

The LMT, a radio telescope that can detect electromagnetic radiation from objects far away, is a high-precision time machine that observes and makes images of galaxies born billions of years ago, providing insight into the birth and evolution of the universe. “The LMT is a bridge to our understanding of the universe,” says Grant Wilson, a professor of astronomy who designed and built the telescope’s sophisticated camera system. The commissioning of the telescope, a joint venture between UMass and Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics and Electronics, is the realization of an idea that began percolating in the late 1980s: build a one-of-a-kind telescope that uses high-frequency radio astronomy to create new knowledge and expand UMass Amherst’s international reputation.

The $200 million telescope is nearly as tall as the 16-story Lederle Graduate Research Tower. The bi-national project produced the largest and most complex scientific instrument ever constructed in Mexico. It sits atop the country’s fifth-highest peak, Sierra Negra, a 15,000-foot inactive volcano 150 miles east of Mexico City. The location provides ideal conditions for large millimeter wavelength telescopes—low humidity and good vantage points with views of both southern and northern skies. The telescope will be able to create maps of distant objects, thereby revealing thousands of new galaxies.

“This instrument makes UMass Amherst a big-time player internationally. It’s been gratifying to see it come on line,” says F. Peter Schloerb, a professor of astronomy.  Last summer the astronomers conducted the first official scientific studies using the telescope. “Once we establish and report on the LMT’s level of precision, which is excellent, I think people are going beat a path to our door to get time on it for their own projects,” notes Schloerb.