A model of ALMA.
Telescope Could Reveal Origin of Universe
Por Daniela Estrada
The gigantic array, whose 66 antennas will be erected in Chile's Atacama desert, is expected to produce crucial data about the cosmos beginning in 2012.
The ALMA radio astronomy project, the largest of its kind in the world, is being built in Chile's Atacama desert and is expected to help reveal no less than the keys to the origin of the universe.
ALMA -- the Atacama Large Millimeter Array -- is a 550-million-dollar initiative of the United States, Japan and the 12-member European Southern Observatory (ESO).
The project involves the installation of 66 antennas, with a resolution 10 times greater than the U.S. space telescope Hubble, considered the most advanced astronomy instrument to date.
Put in orbit by the Discovery space shuttle of the U.S. space agency NASA in April 1990, Hubble allowed us to observe the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums, providing new information about the cosmos.
Beginning in 2012, when all of its antennas will be operational, ALMA should permit scientists to study the age of the universe, its size and structure, the formation of galaxies similar to the Milky Way, the birth of new stars in gas and dust clouds, and the creation of new planets.
According to University of Chile astronomer Leonardo Bronfman, the ALMA project will bring four great benefits to this South American country of 15.6 million people.
First, "it is going to be the world's largest radio astronomy observatory for the next 30 years and, according to the concession agreement, Chilean astronomers have 10 percent of the observation time reserved for them," Bronfman told Tierramérica.
Furthermore, the international consortium is obligated to pay a quantity of money to the Chilean government each year, and it will be used for developing the national astronomy field and social improvement in the region.
ALMA also has promoted the training of specialized professionals, like electric engineers, who are studying to work on construction and maintenance of the observatory.
Bronfman underscored the hiring of local labor to install the antennas, build the operations center and extend infrastructure for electricity, water and communications to the site.
Radio astronomy investigates the sky through the analysis of millimeter and submillimeter radio waves emitted by stars, planets and galaxies in the far reaches of the universe, locations impossible to detect using traditional telescopes.
The 66 antennas -- 110 tons and 12 meters in diameter each -- can operate together, simultaneously observing the same source of radio waves, or separately.
The site chosen for the ALMA project is the Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama Desert, 5,100 meters above sea level in Chile's northern Second Region.
Because of its high altitude, atmospheric stability and low humidity, Chajnantor, 1,600 km north of Santiago, is considered one of the best sites in the world for radio astronomy exploration.
But due to the low concentration of oxygen in the air at that altitude, the ALMA operations center is being built at 2,900 meters above sea level, near San Pedro de Atacama. Construction has not yet begun at Chajnantor.
The transparent skies of northern Chile are largely responsible for the development of astronomy sciences in this country, Gaspar Galaz, an astronomer at the Catholic University, said in a Tierramérica interview. For this reason there are numerous international observatories functioning here, like those in Paranal and La Silla, also belonging to ESO.
Nevertheless, Galaz said there are very few Chilean scientists specialized in radio astronomy, which could make it difficult from the start for this country to best utilize this new tool.
According to a 2005 study by the Chilean Academy of Sciences, the country had 64 astronomers, representing two percent of the national scientific community and whose bibliographic production surpasses that of their Latin American colleagues and is approximately the North American average two decades ago.
At the current pace, Chilean astronomy is projected to become the leading national scientific field, achieving the standards of an industrialized country.
According to the ESO office in Chile, the first ALMA antenna is slated to arrive late 2007 or early 2008, the year the radio observatory could begin partial operations.
The first step in the project took place in 1998, when then-president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos (2000-2006), declared the area a national scientific reserve.
In 2003, Lagos granted a 50-year concession for 18,000 hectares to the U.S.-European consortium. Japan joined the group later.
ALMA is financed by ESO, the National Science Foundation of the United States, National Research Council Canada and Japan's Ministry of Finance.
Participating in construction and operation of ALMA are ESO, the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan.
* Daniela Estrada is a Tierramérica contributor.