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ASTRONOMY

Spain chosen as site of planet’s largest gamma ray telescope

San Roque Observatory in the Canary Islands wins vote to host Cherenkov Telescope Array

Diseño de los telescopio de la red CTA
A computer-generated image of how the telescopes will look.

The largest gamma ray telescope in the world is to be located in the Canary Islands. The 14 countries involved in the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) have decided on the island of La Palma, which sits on the western edge of the Spanish archipelago, some 250 kilometers off the coast of Morocco.

“We have won,” said Rafael Rebolo, director of the Canaries Astrophysics Institute (IAC) on July 16 from Berlin, where the voting took place. “We are very happy because this is a strategic European installation and the fact that it is coming to Spain is an extraordinary scientific opportunity,” he added.

This is a strategic European installation and the fact that it is coming to Spain is an extraordinary scientific opportunity”

Rafael Rebolo, director of the Canaries Astrophysics Institute

Rebolo said the vote was 10 to four in favor of Spain. A second telescope is to be located in Chile. Aside from Spain, other countries taking part in the project are Germany, Austria, Brazil, France, Italy, Japan, Namibia, the Netherlands, Poland, the United Kingdom, Czech Republic, South Africa and Switzerland. Following the decision in Berlin, negotiations will now begin with companies and institutions from both countries to build the observatories. Mexico and Namibia are the alternative locations for the giant telescopes, according to the CTA.

The gamma ray telescopes will be located at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma. A similar observatory in the southern hemisphere will complete the project, estimated at a cost of €200 million, and which aims to be ready by 2020. The northern observatory will cost around €90 million, says the CTA. Spain’s government has promised to provide €40 million, most of which will come from EU funds for regional development.

The CTA captures gamma ray energy, the most powerful in the universe. Until now, such telescopes have only been able to map 10 percent of the sky along this wavelength. The CTA will offer 10 times more precision than current instruments, and aims to investigate the origin of cosmic rays, the composition of dark matter, and some of the most violent objects in the universe, such as black holes.

“The Canary Islands, which provide an extraordinary sky for observation, along with first-class infrastructure, are a world power in astronomy, and will see their position boosted with this new network of telescopes,” says Carmen Vela, Secretary of State for the Economy Ministry’s Research & Development & Innovation department in a press note.

A similar observatory in the southern hemisphere will complete the project, estimated at a cost of €200 million

El Roque will be the location of some 20 telescopes of different sizes. The biggest will have a primary mirror with a 23-meter diameter, and all are being designed by a team of universities and research institutes in Japan, Italy, France, Germany, Brazil, India, Sweden and Croatia, which are working with Spanish teams from the University of Barcelona, the Autonomous University of Barcelona, the Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE), and the Center for Energy, Environmental and Technology Research (CIEMAT), located at Madrid’s Complutense University. Teams from the IAC, the Science Council’s Institute of Space Sciences, and the University of Jaén are also taking part.

The San Roque Observatory is home to the MAGIC (Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes) telescopes that detect particle showers released by gamma rays.

One eye on our galaxy, and another looking beyond

The CTA project is an initiative to build the next generation ground-based very high-energy gamma-ray instrument. It will serve as an open observatory to a wide astrophysics community and will provide a deep insight into the non-thermal high-energy universe.

The CTA’s website outlines the aims of the project as: “understanding the origin of cosmic rays and their role in the Universe”… “understanding the nature and variety of particle acceleration around black holes, and “searching for the ultimate nature of matter and physics beyond the Standard Model.”

Two sites are required to observe activity inside and outside our galaxy. The northern location will focus on phenomena beyond the Milky Way.