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New sustainable telescope to take the 'molecular fingerprint' of galaxies

15 April 2020 

A design study for a ground-breaking new radio telescope, which will be the first of its kind to be powered sustainably – is about to get underway. The work has been approved by The European Commission, through its Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. It involves an international consortium of partners, led by the University of Oslo, with scientists at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) in Edinburgh, taking a leading role in defining the scientific goals for the telescope. 

The Atacama Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope or AtLAST, for short, could provide astronomers with everything from a comprehensive catalogue of the chemicals that make up the atmospheres around planets, to the constituents of galaxies in the earliest Universe – taking a ‘molecular fingerprint’ of galaxies, including our own. This ground-breaking new telescope will be fully powered by renewable energy sources, and could be operational in the 2030s.

“AtLAST will be a single dish submillimeter telescope, measuring 50m in diameter – enabling new discoveries that cannot be achieved with any current or planned astronomical facilities. It will also be an important complement to the state-of-the-art radio telescope – the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), which is positioned 5000 metres up on the Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes,” explains Dr Claudia Cicone, Associate Professor of Astrophysics and study lead, University of Oslo.

"ALMA is one of the world’s largest ground-based telescope – made up of 66 high-precision antennas (which look like giant satellite dishes). It collects light from some of the coldest objects in the Universe at wavelengths of around a millimetre. Known as millimetre (mm) and submillimetre (sub-mm) waves, these sit between infrared and radio waves in the electromagnetic spectrum. At these wavelengths astronomers can probe the very first stars in the earliest galaxies, and directly image the formation of planets.”

Dr Pamela Klaassen, Project Scientist, UK ATC says “ALMA is what is called an interferometer – each of the 66 antennas, works together to create a single giant telescope.

“However, the speed that ALMA can map large areas of the sky is limited.

“With a 50m diameter, AtLAST will have a much larger field of view, and will be able to survey the sky quickly and efficiently, identifying trends, and finding interesting targets for ALMA to follow-up, at high resolution.

“AtLAST will be able to detect Milky Way type galaxies at the highest redshifts (a term that describes how astronomers observe the earliest galaxies in our expanding Universe); study the relationship between galaxies and their surroundings; and even take the temperature of our Galaxy.

“I’m really looking forward to working with the UK and international submillimeter astronomy community to shape the key science cases for this telescope”, concludes Dr Klaassen.

Six working groups will now consider different aspects of the design requirements for this new sustainable telescope. Work streams include: determining the science goals; the overall design of the telescope; how to power the observatory by using exclusively renewable energy; where, close to ALMA, the telescope will be positioned; as well as defining the operations and making a long-term plan for the financial and governmental structure of AtLAST.



For further information:

  • Image bank:
  • Consortium partners:
    • University of Oslo:
      • Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics
      • Department of Technology Systems
    • UK Research and Innovation (UKRI):
      • The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC)
    • The European Southern Observatory (ESO)
    • The University of Hertfordshire

Industrial partner:

  • MT Mechatronics
  • Relevant Twitter handles
    • @EU_H2020
    • @UniOslo @astrofysikk
    • @ukatc @STFC_Matters
    • @ESO
    • @UniOfHerts


  • The UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC):
    Based at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh and operated by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC) is the national centre for astronomical technology. The UK ATC designs and builds instruments for many of the world’s major telescopes on land and in space. It also project manages UK and international collaborations and its scientists carry out observational and theoretical research into questions such as the origins of planets and galaxies. The UK ATC has been at the forefront of the software development for ALMA. The ALMA Observing Tool was built by, and is maintained by UK ATC @ukatc
  • Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC):
    The Science and Technology Facilities Council is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB, the ESO telescopes in Chile and many more. Visit stfc.ukri.org for more information. @STFC_Matters
  • UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)
    UK Research and Innovation works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. We aim to maximise the contribution of each of our component parts, working individually and collectively. We work with our many partners to benefit everyone through knowledge, talent and ideas.

Operating across the whole of the UK with a combined budget of more than £7 billion, UK Research and Innovation brings together the seven research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. @UKRI_News

  • European Southern Observatory (ESO): 
    ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. ESO provides state-of-the-art research facilities to astronomers and is supported by Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising co-operation in astronomical research. It operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. @ESO
  • The University of Hertfordshire (herts.ac.uk)
    The University of Hertfordshire brings the transformational impact of higher education to all. Its students, staff and businesses consistently reach their full potential. Through TEF Gold rated expert teaching, 300 flexible degree programmes, cutting-edge research projects and powerful business partnerships, they think bigger, stand out and positively impact local, national and international communities. @UniOfHerts
  • The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)
    The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of ESO, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI). ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA. @almaobs

Last updated: 15 April 2020


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