A gateway to the universe
The 30-meter telescope on Pico Veleta in the Spanish Sierra Nevada is one of the two radio astronomy facilities operated by IRAM. Built in only four years (1980 to 1984) at an elevation of 2850 meters, it is one of today’s largest and most sensitive radio telescopes for tracing millimeter waves.
The telescope is a classic single dish parabolic antenna, which allows the exploration of extended cosmic objects such as nearby galaxies and interstellar clouds. Due to its large surface, the 30-meter telescope is unrivalled in its sensitivity and is well adapted to detect weak sources. The surface of the parabola is adjusted to a precision of 55 micrometers, corresponding to the width of a human hair.
The 30-meter telescope is equipped with a series of single pixel receivers operating at 3, 2, 1 and 0.8 millimeters and with two cameras working at 1 millimeter: HERA with 9 pixels for the mapping of molecular gas in extended nebulae and MAMBO, a camera with 117 pixels, built by the Max-Planck-Institut for Radioastronomy (in Bonn, Germany), dedicated to the observation of dust emission from nearby molecular clouds and also out to the farthest known galaxies and black holes.
By pointing the telescope towards a celestial source, and then by scanning and tracking the source, one can build up radio images – whether of complete galaxies or regions of star formation in the Milky Way. With its ability to observe simultaneously at several wavelengths, the telescope can produce multiple images.
Scientists are therefore able to obtain detailed maps of the millimeter universe, to look for new, hitherto unknown structures or to comb through the spectra of interstellar objects searching for new molecules.
Today, the 30-meter telescope is one of the most sought-after radio telescopes in the world. Each year, more than 250 astronomers come to Pico Veleta to pursue their scientific projects. In fact, the annual number of submitted proposals is so high that only one third of them can be scheduled. The observatory operates 24 hours a day every day of the year and includes a control room, from which the telescope is operated, along with living quarters for scientists and IRAM staff.
At the forefront of radio astronomy, the 30-meter telescope in the Sierra Nevada also allows astronomers to access parts of the southern skies and therefore to observe the center of our galaxy.