Friday, January 22, 2016
ALMA: In Search of Cosmic Knowledge
ALMA, short for “Atacama Large Millimeter Array,” is the largest observatory ever built. The observatory is located at an altitude of 3.1 miles high on the Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean desert near San Pedro De Atacama, in a place so dry and red it appears that it could be Mars. Dozens of antennas stare at the sky in unison. There is an array of 66 radio telescopes with a diameter of 39 feet and 23 feet observing the sky at millimeter and sub-millimeter wavelengths. They can see deeper and farther in this light than any telescope before. ALMA’s purpose is to provide insight on the birth of stars as well as detailed imaging of local star and planet formation.
As you might expect, a project like this was an international partnership between Europe, the United States, Canada, several countries from East Asia and the Republic of Chile. With 30 years of planning and 10 years of construction the entire project took thousands of scientists and engineers from around the world to complete. The total price tag was approximately $1.3 billion dollars and was split by the three sponsoring regions. Of the total cost the United States taxpayers contributed about $500 million.
The Llano de Chajnantor Observatory in Chile has been fully operational since March of 2013. ALMA combines dozens of these individual radio telescope dishes into a single observing instrument. What is amazing to me is that the resolution will be five times greater than that of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Some facts about ALMA that intrigued me:
· The observatory is accurate enough to detect a golf ball nine miles away.
· This high altitude is one of the driest places on Earth. This means no clouds.
· The dish design is almost perfect which prevent any loss of incoming radio waves.
· Each ALMA antenna must be kept at a chilling -452 degrees Fahrenheit to prevent noise.
· This will allow astronomers to see into distant gas clouds to study star and planet formation.
ALMA means “soul” in Spanish and “learned” or “knowledgeable” in Arabic. It will be interesting to see what information we can learn from our collective efforts in our search for knowledge about our universe. I find it a bit ironic that ALMA, in her otherworldly setting, sitting high atop a snow-capped plateau, surrounded by volcanoes, is also stepping up the search for alien life…somewhere…out there.
For images and information visit: http://www.almaobservatory.org/