NOEMA in the search for our origins

The observatory on the Plateau de Bure is being expanded to become the most powerful radio telescope in the northern hemisphere

September 22, 2014
With the official inauguration of the first of six planned NOEMA antennas on 22 September, the Max Planck Society and its partner institution IRAM are taking a crucial step towards one of the largest Franco-German projects in astronomy: the expansion of the Plateau de Bure observatory in the French Alps into the most powerful and most sensitive millimetre radio telescope in the northern hemisphere. The scientists are hoping that this state of the art observatory will provide answers to questions about our origins and the formation of the universe.

Millimetre wave radio astronomy plays a key role in modern astrophysics. While optical telescopes are geared mainly towards the observation of hot celestial objects, such as stars, these radio telescopes allow researchers to investigate the cold universe at temperatures only a few degrees above absolute zero (-273.15 degrees Celsius). They can find objects which optical instruments cannot observe, because the former are surrounded by cosmic dust and interstellar clouds.

Scientists at MPE have been using the IRAM interferometer on the Plateau de Bure for more than 20 years to study cold gas in galaxies. With the continuously increasing sensitivity over the past years, they have been able to measure the gas content of normal galaxies in the early universe. These galaxies contain much more gas than galaxies today and therefore are able to form many new stars, without the need for galaxy mergers.

NOEMA (NOrthern Extended Millimeter Array) is one of a new generation of radio telescopes and will be the most powerful interferometer in the northern hemisphere when it is completed. Thanks to six additional 15-metre antennas and the use of completely new instruments, as well as an extension of the track systems, which allow the telescopes to be positioned at separations of up to 1.6 kilometres, NOEMA will measure the sky with ten times the sensitivity and four times the spatial resolution that was possible with the previous instruments. The observatory is located on a unique plateau in the French Alps at an altitude of more than 2500 metres above sea level.

With the extension to NOEMA, the Plateau de Bure interferometer remains an important tool for astronomical studies at the forefront of technology. Scientists at MPE will continue to use it not only for researching far-away galaxies but also for astrochemical studies in our own Milky Way. 

IRAM Director, Karl-Friedrich Schuster, who is External Scientific Member at MPE, is enthusiastic: “Together with the advancing technological developments, this telescope opens up completely new possibilities to investigate the fascinating questions of modern astronomy.” At the same time, the project is also the ideal partner for the ALMA radio telescope located in the southern hemisphere. “I am sure that NOEMA will perform important pioneering work in astrophysics above and beyond the decades to come,” says Schuster.

IRAM, the Institute for Radio Astronomy in the millimetre range of wavelengths, was founded in 1979 by the German Max Planck Society (MPG) and the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), and expanded in 1990 by the Spanish Instituto Geografico Nacional (IGN). The Institute has its headquarters in Grenoble and operates two observatories: the 30-metre telescope on the Pico Veleta near Granada in Spain, and the interferometer (six 15-metre dishes) on the Plateau de Bure in the French High Alps.

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