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Towards an Atacama Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - AtLAST (Towards an Atacama Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope)

Reporting period: 2021-03-01 to 2022-08-31

The coldest and densest structures of gas and dust in the Universe produce unique astrophysical signals at (sub-)millimeter ((sub-)mm) wavelengths (λ from 0.35 to 10 mm), which reveal physical processes that are invisible to optical and infrared telescopes. (Sub-)mm observations of the sky have transformed our understanding of the origin of chemical complexity, the birth of stars and planetary systems, the evolution of galaxies across cosmic times, and the large-scale architecture of the Universe. The current generation of 10-meter-class single-antenna telescopes has given a glimpse of the potential for discovery, while interferometers have presented a high resolution view into the finer details of known targets or in small-area deep fields. However, significant advances in our understanding of such cold and dense structures are now hampered by the limited sensitivity and angular resolution of our (sub-)mm view of the Universe at larger scales.

The design study for the Atacama Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (AtLAST) is developing a concept for a new, single-antenna (sub)-mm telescope, with a 50-meter diameter and a field-of-view of 2 degrees. These specifications, combined, are unprecedented in the field of (sub-)mm astronomy, and will make AtLAST the fastest, most sensitive, and highest resolution mapping machine of the (sub-)mm sky. Besides the structural design of such next-generation telescope, the study is also addressing the selection of the optimal site, the power supply through renewable energy, the science goals, and the governance and operational model for the new facility. The project will deliver a full feasibility study that considers the technical, operational, environmental, and scientific challenges of building and operating AtLAST.
In the first 18 months of project, the AtLAST team has:
- Developed a full optical design for the telescope.
- Elaborated a baseline mechanical design for the telescope structure, drive system, electrical system, receiver housing, and instrument locations.
- Consulted with the world-wide scientific community to identify the most transformative science goals for AtLAST, which have been grouped in five key themes: the Sun, the Solar System, the Milky Way, the Nearby Universe, and the Distant Universe.
- Collected and analysed a large amount of available weather data characterising different locations on the Chajnantor Pleateau in the Chilean Atacama Desert.
- Selected two optimal locations based on available data, both at an altitude of 5000 meters above sea level, on which further measurements will be collected to inform the final AtLAST site recommendation.
- Studied operational models and plans of other large research facilities inside and outside the field of astronomy, to capitalise on the experience gathered over several decades as well as on the most modern operations management techniques.
- Researched options of governance that are adequate for a facility operated by an international partnership.
- Performed scenario studies of various alternatives for powering AtLAST with renewable energy, including options to supply the energy needs of the nearby town of San Pedro de Atacama. The scenarios consider the influence of weather, altitude, as well as the combination of various system components (solar photovoltaics, diesel, hydrogen, batteries, etc.). Through modelling, for each scenario, the direct impact of CO2 emissions and systems' cost projected by 2030 were estimated.
- Gathered, through a survey, the opinions of local stakeholders regarding the renewable energy system for AtLAST.
- Organised two workshops in Chile to discuss the local stakeholders' positions and find out their best accepted solutions to power AtLAST and the local community.
- Collected realistic specifications for future AtLAST instrumentation exploiting the large focal plane of the telescope, for two timescales (3 and 10 years), and for three broad categories of instruments, namely: continuum cameras, heterodyne arrays, and integral field units.
- Begun an AtLAST memo series which will serve to inform the single dish (sub-)mm community for years to come, similar to the ALMA memo series for the interferometric (sub-)mm community.
AtLAST’s vision is to promote a sustainable pursuit of transformational science. The project aims to have a wide impact by stimulating research and directly producing results that will significantly advance the fields of astrophysics, telescope design, sustainable power delivery and storage in remote locations, and instrumentation development. The practical goal of the design study is to provide the data and information that are needed to convince the appropriate agencies (governments, astronomy organisations, universities) to plan the next stage in the observatory’s development: the initiation of governance and funding agreements that will lead to the construction of AtLAST.

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