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September 16, 2004

Amec’s $8.3M project may help determine origin of universe

AMEC, a leading international designer and builder of astronomy telescopes and enclosures, has landed a $3.8-million (U.S.) contract to design and build a “cosmology” telescope in Chile that could determine the origin of the universe.

The contract was awarded to AMEC’s Dynamic Structures business unit, based in Port Coquitlam, B.C., by Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania. Funding is being provided by the U.S. National Science Foundation.

AMEC begins work on the project immediately, with completion expected in June 2006. The six-metre-diameter, off-axis, millimetre-wave Atacama telescope will be used to study cosmic microwave background radiation—the remnant heat left over from the “Big Bang” that still pervades the universe and is visible to microwave detectors as a uniform glow across the entire sky.

David Halliday

The radiation is composed of mass-less or nearly massless particles that move at the speed of light.

Unlike other radio telescopes that look for a faint radiowave source then track it once-found, the Atacama telescope will scan a patch of sky back and forth millions of times, creating an overlay of information, resulting in an image that can provide more detailed clues to help resolve the mysteries of the universe.

A computer rendering of the telescope to be constructed by AMEC.

Image courtesy AMEC

It is the only radio telescope in the world that can perform this kind of function, AMEC said.

“This telescope has a very scientific requirement,” said David Halliday, vicepresident and director of special projects for the AMEC’s Dynamic Structures unit.

“Within two years of the telescope’s operation, scientists should have sufficient data to map out the formation of cosmic structure, to determine the origin of the beginning of the earth and to prove the ‘big-bang’ theory.

“It’s an extremely important piece of equipment and we are thrilled to be part of the team developing it.”

The project is a collaboration between the two universities, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, the astrophysics research group INOAE in Mexico and a number of universities— including two in Canada.

“Our goal is to look at this cosmic microwave background in finer resolution and greater sensitivity than has ever been done before and from that, we can determine a slew of new things about the universe,” said Lyman Page, professor of physics at Princeton and director of the project.

“Foremost, we will directly test models of the very early stages of the birth and evolution of the universe. We will be able to observe how all structure— galaxies and clusters of galaxies— formed. This telescope is the first of this size and kind designed specifically to make these measurements.”

AMEC said part of the design challenge stems from the fact that the telescope will be sited on the western face of the Cerro Toco mountain range in the Atacama desert region of Chile at an altitude of 5,200 metres.

The operating condition of the telescope is challenged by extreme weather conditions, including rain, snow, winds up to 145 miles per hour and temperatures ranging from -20 C to 20 C, the company said.

“In the three years of project planning, we were presented with the challenge of ‘how do you design a telescope that oscillates back and forth, millions of times, while maintaining its optical performance,’ ” Page said.

Made up of primary reflectors measuring six metres by 6.4 metres and supported by an elevation frame and mount structure, the telescope is set inside a bowl-shaped, protective ground-screen framing which measures 40 feet in height. AMEC will design and manufacture the telescope structure at its Port Coquitlam plant, where the entire structure will be assembled and subjected to a series of tests to ensure it meets specifications before being shipped to Chile.

Due to the lack of oxygen at the 5,200-metre level, AMEC will either assemble the final structure at sea level and transport it to its mountain-top perch or assemble it at a local town 9,000 feet above sea level, then transport it to its final destination.

AMEC, headquartered in London, England, is a player in the Coalition for Canadian Astronomy, a group of industry, educational and scientific leaders that is urging Ottawa to support financially a 10-year plan for astronomy and astrophysics.

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