David Aguilar
(617) 495-7462

Christine Pulliam
(617) 495-7463


CfA Press Release
 Release No.: 03-24
For Release: November 22, 2003

SMA Dedication Opens Elusive Frontier For Exploration

Hilo, HI- Today, one of astronomy's most elusive frontiers in understanding the secrets of the universe was opened wide with the dedication of the Submillimeter Array (SMA) on top of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. The SMA is the world's first imaging telescope array that views the universe at submillimeter wavelengths. It will offer unprecedentedly sharp views of the cold and dusty regions of the universe, including locations where stars and planets are being formed.

"A lot of people have worked long, hard hours over the past twelve years to create this innovative new telescope. Now, the SMA will enable astronomers to study the cosmos in completely new and unique ways, and to discover new properties of the universe," says SMA Director Jim Moran.

The SMA has three key advantages in studying submillimeter wavelengths of light (light with wavelengths between 1/20 and 1/100 inch). First, the use of an interferometric array will provide detailed, high-resolution views of the universe. The SMA is comprised of eight 20-foot-diameter antennas that function as one giant telescope. At their widest separation, the SMA antennas can provide views as detailed as a single telescope 1,600 feet in diameter. Such high resolution, equivalent to that of the giant Keck telescopes in the optical regime, will enable astronomers to study diverse environments impossible to reach with visible-light telescopes.

The SMA's second advantage is its precisely shaped antennas and highly sensitive detectors, which will collect faint submillimeter light with great efficiency. The third crucial advantage is the SMA's location nearly 14,000 feet above sea level atop Mauna Kea, above most of the atmosphere and water vapor that absorb incoming submillimeter energy.

"With its exceptional resolving power, extraordinary sensitivity, and ideal location, the SMA is destined to provide unprecedented insights into the universe," says Antony Schinckel, SMA Director of Operations. "The SMA will allow us to peek into hidden regions of galaxies spanning the entire history of the universe, and image physical processes which have been impossible to view until now."

The first scientific paper based on SMA observations was published earlier this year in the March 20, 2003 issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters. It reported on the flaring emission from the radio source surrounding the black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy. Those observations were only a taste of what will come. Researchers will use the SMA to study the cold and dusty areas of our Galaxy where stars form, to monitor the weather on Mars and other planets and moons, and to study other galaxies throughout the universe.

Astronomers will peer into star-forming regions to learn how gas clouds collapse to form new stars and how those stars grow and mature. They will examine the disks of matter surrounding these newborn stars (from which new planets form) to gain an understanding of the planet-building process, allowing astronomers to better predict whether life-bearing worlds like Earth exist elsewhere in our Galaxy and where we should look for them. And, they will look into the distant past to study the first generation of galaxies formed after the Big Bang, whose light has been stretched and reddened by the expansion of billions of light-years of intervening space.

In conjunction with the dedication of the new telescope, the SMA also celebrated the completion of its new Operations and Support Facility in Hilo, Hawaii. The new facility provides offices; laboratories for the development and maintenance of instrumentation for the SMA; and a remote operations room from which the entire telescope can be operated, freeing the astronomers and technicians from the demanding environment of the 13,600-foot high Observatory. This 18,000 square-foot building in the Research Park of the University of Hawaii at Hilo was designed by Urban Works, Inc. of Honolulu and was built by Taisei Construction Corporation.

The SMA is a collaborative project of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) and the Academia Sinica Institute of Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASIAA) in Taiwan. ASIAA contributed two antennas and the associated electronics. The University of Hawaii provided the site and assisted with the local arrangements. The three organizations will share the scientific use of the SMA.

NOTE TO EDITORS: An image associated with this release is available at: http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/archive/pr0324image.html.

Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics is a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Harvard College Observatory. CfA scientists, organized into six research divisions, study the origin, evolution and ultimate fate of the universe.

SMA dedication contacts:

Amanda Preston, (808) 933-6947, cell (978) 853-8848
Debbie Hansen, (808) 933-7073
David Aguilar, (617) 495-7462

SMA science contacts:

Antony Schinckel, (808) 933-6949, cell (808) 938-2251, fax (808) 933-8114
Alison Peck, (808) 933-6962

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