AMHERST, Mass.--University of Massachusetts astronomers want to seek the mystery of the birth of stars, and say building the world's largest millimeter wave radio telescope will give them that ability.
But funding for the $10 million to $20 million instrument must first be found before astronomers can search the skies, said project proponent Paul Goldsmith of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
"Obviously, the fact that the state is in a disastrous financial situation doesn't help," he said yesterday.
But Goldsmith said he believes in the merit of the new telescope and that it would help keep the United States competitive with large telescopes in Europe and Japan.
"We are entering a new decade," he said, noting that the University of Massachusetts' current observatory was started "several funding disasters ago."
The project is in initial design stages at the Five College Astronomy Department, a cooperative venture of UMass and Hampshire, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith colleges.
"We think that if we can keep the cost down and deliver a very large telescope that will be a compelling reason for funding," said Peter Schloerb, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts.
The present Five College radio telescope, 45 feet wide, is the largest in North America designed to pick up millimeter wavelength signals from space.
The new telescope would have a dish antenna approximately 200 feet wide, under preliminary design plans.
Currently, the largest such telescope is a 150-wide-foot dish in Japan, Goldsmith said.
The Five Colleges department hopes to get construction money from the National Science Foundation and state funds for operation.
Competition for the federal funds is stiff, astronomers said.
"Twenty million is incredibly hard to come by nowadays for astronomy," Steve Maran of the American Astronomy Society in Washington, D.C., said yesterday.
But developing new technology is important, the astronomers said.
"Millimeter astronomy is really the one area of astronomy I think in the country that has been shortchanged," said Paul Vanden Bout, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Va. "It really hasn't gotten its due and I think the time has come before our friends abroad run away with the field."
The millimeter wave radio telescopes work by collecting information through antennas and then creating a computer image. The telescopes are able to see cold gas clouds, where stars form, earlier than optical telescopes, thereby giving a better picture of the birth of stars, Goldsmith said.
The proposed scope would use new technology of motorized panels that would give a better picture, he said.
Design of the project is in the preliminary stages, so officials have about three years to find money for the project, he said.
"Probing question like how the solar system and stars get made give humans a certain satisfaction. It's not the same as having a proper place to live and having drug centers but it's part of human civilization and it has to go on at an appropriate level," he said.