UMass Amherst Astronomy Opens Elite Telescope to U.S. Institutions

Large Millimeter Telescope, joint project with Mexico, gets grant to share time, expertise
The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in Mexico
The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) in Mexico

Astronomers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are marking an especially meaningful event this month, as a team led by Professor Peter Schloerb recently received a three-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to provide support for the Large Millimeter Telescope in Mexico and to offer – for the first time – access to it for astronomers from any U.S. institution.

Schloerb says, “The LMT is a unique facility that has had an important impact on astronomical research, including, most recently, as a key station in the network that produced the first-ever image of a black hole. The U.S. astronomy community identified access to telescopes like the LMT as a priority in the 2010 Decadal Survey of Astronomy. UMass Amherst now leads the effort to provide this to all U.S. astronomers.”

He adds, “This is an exciting time for the LMT. We have a suite of new instruments coming online which will further enhance the telescope’s ability to deliver strong scientific results. Enabling the U.S. community to use the telescope has always been an important goal for our group, and we’re very glad to be in a leadership role on this with our partners in this new project.” 

Those partners are the University of Maryland, College Park in the United States, and the Consejo Nacional de Ciecia y Tecnología (CONACyT) and the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE) in Mexico.

The LMT is a 50-meter diameter radio telescope built througha collaboration of UMass Amherst and Mexico. It is located in the state of Puebla atop a 15,000-foot peak and is the largest telescope of its type in the world. Building it was the largest science project in Mexican history, Schloerb recalls. It is closed during the pandemic, but will re-open once the COVID-19 situation improves in Mexico, he adds.

U.S. astronomers will be able to submit proposals for access to 15 percent of the LMT observing time, Schloerb says. “They will also benefit from having LMT’s trained staff available to conduct the observations and help users turn their raw telescope data into useful scientific products. The new NSF funding will allow us to upgrade LMT services to a level you’d expect from one of our national observatories.”

Specifically, as co-principal investigator Grant Wilson explains, “We’ll have new software writers on board from the University of Maryland, where they have senior-level expertise in software development for millimeter-wave astronomy.” 

Wilson adds, “Software is a critical need; often the first question a researcher asks after observing is, ‘How do I process the data?’ We’ll help users in all ways from writing a sensible proposal, to observing support and with data analysis to help them get to science-ready data products.”  Two other co-principal investigators on the new grant are UMass Amherst astronomers Min Yun and Alexandra Pope.

The new LMT program also capitalizes on the U.S. partnership with the ALMA interferometer in Chile, which Wilson says is “fantastic for doing high-resolution studies of dust and gas, but not good at making big images that help people understand the environment where the objects exist. It’s like studying a home without knowing anything about the neighborhood – is it urban or rural? – that makes a big difference.”

Further, he points out, “Astronomers want to know what the history of the neighborhood is, and what might it do next. LMT has the ability to provide a baseline hand-in-hand with ALMA to provide this level of specificity and detail.”

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