New telescope aids University research

By Emily Sokolik

A new millimeter-wave telescope array in the eastern California mountains is helping University astronomers uncover the mysteries of the cosmos.

The Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy is a research facility located at Cedar Flat near Bishop, California.

The innovative project is composed of a consortium of four universities including the University of Illinois, California Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Maryland.

Before the creation of CARMA, the University was part of a smaller research venture involving nine 6-meter telescopes known as BIMA, or the Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland-Association. CARMA is the result of merging the BIMA telescopes and the six 10-meter telescopes from California Institute of Technology’s Owens Valley Radio Observatory.

“When you have more telescopes all together, looking at the same thing, you can gather a lot more information,” said M. Mitchell Waldrop of the National Science Foundation, co-financer of the project. “With the naked eye, you can’t see out there and there’s a lot going on.”

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The telescopes from the Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland-Association and the Owens Valley Radio Observatory were combined, totaling 15, and relocated to CARMA’s new location in the Inyo Mountains. The site was favored because of the dry air and the 7,200-foot elevation.

“The whole point of doing this is that the higher you get in the air, the more you get above water vapor,” Waldrop said. “Water vapor screens out radio waves that keep you from exploring the universe.”

Richard Crutcher, a professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois and a member of the CARMA Science Steering Committee, said the University began involvement with the Berkeley-Illinois-Maryland-Association 20 years ago.

The University is expecting to study cosmic phenomenon in greater depth because of the new telescope’s increased sensitivity, broader frequency coverage and resolution, and innovative technologies, Crutcher said.

“Our major interests are star formation, astrochemistry and biologically important molecules,” he explained.

Many graduate students studying astronomy have collected data at the CARMA site to send back to the University for further examination. “We consider this to be one of the best ways of training our students,” Crutcher said.

CARMA observes starburst and blue dwarf galaxies, gas clouds forming new stars, comets and radiation from the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago, according to the CARMA Association. Astronomers around the world are given access to CARMA to study their particular astronomical area of interest.

A new radio wave telescope, funded by Canada, Japan, Europe, Chile and the National Science Foundation, is currently under construction in the Chilean Andes. The Atacama Large Millimeter Array will rival CARMA with an elevation of 16,000 feet. Waldrop said CARMA will still be useful for astronomers, however, even after Atacama’s 2012 completion date.

James Kirkpatrick, executive associate dean of LAS and a member of the CARMA board of directors, said CARMA will be fully operational in the near future.

“It’s currently the best observatory of its type,” he said. “We’re expecting many important discoveries in astronomy and cosmology to come out of this.”