Breakthrough telescope in Chile renamed for benefactor Cornell alum

ITHACA, N.Y. – The powerful new telescope being built for an exceptional high-elevation site in Chile by a consortium of U.S., German and Canadian academic institutions, led by Cornell University, has a new name: the Fred Young Submillimeter Telescope (FYST).

The telescope – formerly the Cerro Chajnantor Atacama Telescope-prime (CCAT-prime) – is being renamed in honor of Cornell alum Fred Young, an ardent and active supporter who has given more than $16 million to the project over the past two decades.

FYST is scheduled for first light in 2022 and will probe the earliest observable epochs of the universe.

Young has been instrumental in keeping the telescope project moving forward, said Martha Haynes, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Astronomy in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, and chair of the telescope’s board of directors.

“Certainly Fred has been a major contributor of the financial resources needed to bring the telescope from a design concept to today’s state of final construction,” Haynes said. “But even beyond that, his intellectual curiosity, his passion for cosmology and his visionary support for technological innovation have been critical to the telescope’s development. Fred has inspired as well as enabled us to be bold.”

Young said he’s humbled by the honor and appreciates the recognition, “especially because I’ve been at it for so many years,” he said. “I feel like it’s family, really.”

His involvement with the telescope project began in its early days, more than 20 years ago. In addition to his financial support, Young has been an active participant in the planning process, including joining weekly science meetings and making multiple visits to the manufacturer in Germany and the installation site in Chile.

“We are all very excited that the telescope is now starting to be pre-assembled in Germany, and thus the dream becomes reality,” said Jürgen Stutzki, University of Cologne project lead. “We owe this achievement to Fred Young’s continued long-term and enthusiastic support and his generous donations.”

Added Michel Fich, University of Waterloo project lead: “Dozens of astronomers from institutions across Canada are eagerly preparing to use the telescope to achieve a wide range of science goals. We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Fred Young who, through his constant encouragement and vision, has kept us focused over the many years that are required to bring such a wonderful project to completion.”

Young has always been fascinated by astronomy, particularly “cosmic questions” such as how the universe got started. It’s a question the telescope bearing his name will be well positioned to answer.

The 6-meter aperture (primary mirror diameter) telescope is specifically designed to quickly map large areas of the sky at submillimeter and millimeter wavelengths – 1,000 times longer than the human eye can see. Such wavelengths can give unprecedented insights into how the first galaxies “lit up” the universe during “Cosmic Dawn,” a few hundred million years after the Big Bang; how stars form in the Milky Way and nearby galaxies today; and how the expansion of the universe has been influenced by inflation and dark energy.

The telescope’s location at the summit of Cerro Chajnantor in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, at 18,400 feet elevation, is key to its success, Young said. Cerro Chajnantor is the highest permanent astronomical site in the world.

“Submillimeter radiation finds water vapor to be somewhat opaque – it’s like shining a flashlight at a wall; it doesn’t go through,” said Young. “At 18,400 feet, the telescope is above 50% of the mass of the atmosphere. And the Atacama is the driest tropical desert in the world. The combination of those two things makes this probably the best location in the world for submillimeter astronomy, and that’s pretty exciting.”

The location and novel design will also allow observations of about 80% of the sky through all seasons.

The Fred Young Submillimeter Telescope is being built by Vertex Antennentechnik GmbH of Duisburg, Germany. The CCAT corporation is a partnership of Cornell; a German consortium of the University of Cologne, the University of Bonn and the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics; and the Canadian Atacama Telescope Consortium, a partnership of Canadian academic institutions. Faculty and staff at other institutes in the U.S., Canada, Chile and Germany are also involved in science planning and instrumentation development.

CCAT operates in Chile under a cooperative agreement with the University of Chile, under the auspices of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.