Ground-Breaking Set for UMass Amherst-Mexico Large Millimeter Telescope

AMHERST, Mass. - On Sept. 23, representatives from the University of Massachusetts will participate in a ground-breaking ceremony in Puebla, Mexico, to initiate construction of the world’s largest radio telescope operating at millimeter wavelengths - the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT).

Keynote speeches will be given by the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow, a University alumnus, and Manuel Bartlett-Diaz, Governor of the State of Puebla, Mexico. A day-long series of events is planned, with the ground-breaking scheduled at 10 a.m., followed by lunch, and several guest lecturers. These include several Mexican scientists, whose names will be announced shortly, plus Paul van den Bout, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Charlottesville, Va., and Paul Goldsmith, director of the Arecibo Observatory, Puerto Rico.

According to Stephen Strom, professor of astronomy and LMT principal investigator/USA, when fully installed on its 15,000-foot high mountain site--Cerro La Negra, 140 miles east of Mexico City-late in the year 2000, LMT’s unparalleled collecting area (an antenna with a diameter of 50 meters, or more than half the size of a football field) plus advanced detectors will enable astronomers to carry out scientific programs of fundamental importance to advancing the understanding of the origin of the universe and its constituent building blocks.

Moreover, "LMT will provide astronomers with a uniquely powerful tool to detect radio waves which started their journey earthward approximately 10 to 15 billion years ago when the first stars in the universe burst into existence," according to Frederick W. Byron, interim vice chancellor for research.

F. Peter Schloerb, director of the University’s Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory, said: "This telescope will allow us to search for forming, and already formed, solar systems analogous to our own, and perhaps to uncover the chemical paths that lead to the creation of complex, perhaps pre-biotic molecules."

LMT’s power to make these observations derives from its ability to detect radio signals emanating from gas and dust in the coldest regions of the universe ? regions which emit insignificantly at wavelengths (0.0005 mm) to which the human eye is sensitive, but which by contrast produce detectable signals at wavelengths near 1 mm, Byron said.

The telescope is a joint project of the University and the Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica (INAOE, or, in English, the Mexican National Institute for Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics, a degree-granting research institution located near Puebla, Mexico).

Preparing the mountain site and building the telescope will cost about $65 million U.S. dollars, with funding coming from the U.S. Government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Federal Government of Mexico, and the State of Puebla, Mexico.

The design and construction of the antenna will be led by the German firm MAN Technologie, which has had extensive experience in manufacturing and installing major radio telescopes in the U.S. and Europe. The University’s Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory will construct the sophisticated instruments needed to detect weak cosmic radio signals, and will work jointly with MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory to develop the advanced laser measuring system critical to enabling the telescope to point and track with the required exquisite accuracy.

The with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will also collaborate with UMass and INAOE astronomers in guiding the design and construction efforts. Astronomers at INAOE will oversee site development, a key portion of the telescope optics, and the installation and final adjustment of the approximately 2,000 ultra-precision panels comprising the antenna surface.

According to Dr. Alfonso Serrano, director general of INAOE and deputy director of the Mexican National Science Foundation (CONACYT), when it is fully operational, viewing time of the giant telescope will be divided equally between the partnering institutions, both of which plan to make significant blocks of time available to research astronomers throughout the world, based on competitive review of proposed research.

Serrano said: "Not only will LMT enable fundamental scientific advances, but perhaps more importantly it symbolizes the deep commitment of both Mexico and the U.S. to support exploration at the frontiers of knowledge. I think that is critical to exciting the imagination of young people, some of whom will become the scientists and engineers of tomorrow. To a large extent, the economic health and vitality of both societies rests in their hands."

University Chancellor David K. Scott remarked that, "Partnerships like the LMT represent the future - one in which institutions in the U.S. and other countries work in close partnership to develop the tools of modern science, the technologies of tomorrow, and tomorrow’s leaders."