Science for new telescope advances at virtual conference

Two weeks before the inaugural CCAT-prime telescope collaboration meeting was to be held, April 7 at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a switch to an online format.

Because the telescope – a high-powered, 6-meter-diameter instrument being built at 18,300 feet above sea level in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile – is an international project with scientists in wildly disparate time zones, conference organizers faced major challenges.

“You can’t finish at 5 p.m. EDT, because that’s midnight for Europeans,” said conference organizer Michel Fich, professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo.

To compensate for the loss of informal, in-person conversations, optional time on a fourth day was added to the conference. “Every minute scheduled on that Friday was used,” said project scientist Gordon Stacey, professor of astronomy in the College of  Arts and Sciences. “It was a terrifically good meeting.”

Attendance was high; the original 41 in-person registrants expanded to more than 100 online.

“It was gratifying to note the widespread interest in CCAT-prime based on the number of attendees of the recent Zoom meeting,” said Fred Young ’64, M.Eng. ’66, MBA ’66, an active participant in the meeting and major supporter of the project.

Despite the COVD-19 pandemic, telescope fabrication is continuing in Germany; first light for CCAT-prime is planned for the end of 2021. More than 40 papers related to CCAT-prime have already published, and many of the conference talks focused on science goals for CCAT-prime’s first year.

“CCAT-prime has the ability to measure some really small signals for the first time, but there are very difficult data analysis problems that we need to solve in order to extract these small signals that we’re interested in,” said Nicholas Battaglia, assistant professor of astronomy. Battaglia is co-lead of the project’s galaxy and cluster formation working group.

The online format meant that undergraduate students, including Yijie Zhu ’21, a physics and math major, were able to participate. Zhu presented on a project that he is working on with Battaglia regarding CCAT-prime’s ability to detect Rayleigh scattering – one of the small signals that is hidden within the CMBrelic radiation from shortly after the Big Bang.

Presentations were given by CCAT-prime project director Terry Herter, professor of astronomy; Michael Niemack, associate professor of physics and astronomy; Steve Choi, Cornell Presidential Postdoctoral Fellow; and Dominik Reichers, assistant professor of astronomy. Collaborators from around the world also presented.

“I don’t think people realized before this meeting how much overlap there is in the data that the different science projects need,” Fich said. “For example, one project is observing the cosmic microwave background (the most distant observable part of the universe), and another group is looking at transients (things that change in brightness) such as nearby protostars – and it turned out they all want the same data.”

Bringing all the science groups together to begin melding their requirements into one survey that can be executed remotely was an important part of the meeting, Stacey said. “That project really got kicked off,” he said. “People are all on the same page as far as the instruments, their sensitivities and the amount of time available.”

The working groups will continue meeting weekly via telecom. Once a survey strategy is finalized, it will be put together into a single document to guide project science.

Read the full version of this story on the Arts and Sciences website.

Linda B. Glaser is the news and media relations manager for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Jeff Tyson