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World’s Largest Terrestrial Radio Telescope, ALMA Opens it’s Eyes

Posted: October 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Astronomy, Cankler, Science, Science News | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on World’s Largest Terrestrial Radio Telescope, ALMA Opens it’s Eyes

The human senses are a marvel of natural design but they are limited by their physical qualities. Perfectly adapted to life on the surface of the planet Earth, not so great if you want to listen to faint stars on the other side of the universe. Luckily enough one of humanities greatest survival techniques is making use of other sensory systems.

Whether it be listening for the bark of a guard dog to pointing the largest telescope in the world at just the right bit of the sky humanity has always made use of tools to extend our senses. The latest addition to our extra sensory abilities is the Worlds Largest Millimeter / Sub-Millimeter Radio Telescope in Chile, The Atacama Large Millimeter/sub millimeter Array – ALMA – sits upon the high planes of the Chajnantor plateau in northern Chile.

At an altitude of 5000 meters.in the middle of an isolated plateau the ALMA telescope has one of the clearest sky to look through. The array itself consists of 66 individual radio telescopes networked together, with their combined power being pointed at a single point they are able to produce the highest resolution images possible of the furthest reaches of our universe. Helping us look at the coldest darkest parts of the Universe with new clarity. ALMA joins other great names such as Hubble and SDO in our list of most valuable scientific instruments, or was that most popular scientific instruments ::::

ALMA is an absolutely mammoth construction effort with 66 telescopes having to be moved to the top of some of the harshest mountains in the world. The telescopes weigh 115 tonnes and are moved into placed fully assembled. An Operation Support Facility – construction and assembly area – half way up the mountain at 2900m is used to assemble the antennas, from there the 130 tonne transport vehicles drive the antenna up the mountain in to place. The first antenna was moved on July 7, 2008, July 28, 2011 saw the 16th antenna hauled up the mountain completing the first construction phase and signally the starting of the first scientific observations.


The administration buildings and general facilities at ALMA’s Chajnantor plateau facility are nestled in the Atacama desert sitting at the nausea inducing altitude of 5000 meters. Northern Chile now has a new small town, with the whole facility springing up in the desert. The entire Atacama facility had to be constructed off site and transported into place. Costing over a billion dollars the project is too large for any one country to undertake, ALMA required a partnership between most of the major players in the Large Array Telescope world, Europe, North America, East Asia and the Republic of Chile. Each of the parties also brought much experience with Large Array telescopes,  the Millimeter Array – MMA – of the United States, the Large Southern Array – LSA – of Europe, and the Large Millimeter Array – LMA – of Japan all provided a design starting point for ALMA. ALMA took the design concepts of its forefathers and turned them up to 11. Eventually ALMA will use 66 individual radio telescopes – 12-meter and 7-meter diameter -, with the combined power of all of the telescopes being used to build a highly detailed image of the subject matter.


The Billion dollar initial construction costs makes this the most expensive ground based array in the world, the records just keep tumbling. The largest number of telescopes in a single array, able to cover the largest area of any single array. ALMA continues on the tradition of large array telescopes that came before it. Making use of many of the tricks developed by the American LMA or the European LSA. At ALMA’s heart are 54 large 12 meter antenna, large and powerful they provide the main focal point for the image. Other surrounding antenna can be moved up to 16km around the desert site, providing wider field of view or enhancing detail, positioning is also used as a form of focus and powerful variable zoom, no auto focus is available mind you. The remaining antenna can be configured in anyway that is required for any given target. With a total of 66 antenna in the system once complete ALMA can provide the most detailed images of interstellar space that was out of our field of vision until now.


ALMA and all other millimeter telescopes look into the coldest and most distant parts of the universe, the parts of the universe where galaxies are being formed, collisions are tearing galaxies apart and black holes are eating the left overs. In the world of electromagnetic radiation a millimeter is large low power wavelength, well below visible lights frequency. Sub-millimeter telescopes observe molecular clouds, dark cloud cores and cold distant remnants of galaxies. The entire life cycle of galaxies is being studied, from nebula clouds forming galaxies and solar systems to the destructive end of many galaxies. The chemical make-up and different mechanisms involved in the life cycle are also being studied using sub-millimeter wavelength electromagnetic energy, which just happens to be ALMA’s specialty.


Sub-Millimeter observations are very susceptible to atmospheric interference, even moisture is enough to cause issues. Ideally the site for a sub-millimeter observatory should be dry, cool, have stable weather conditions and be well away from urban population centers. Only a few locations around the world tick all of these boxes, these include Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA) the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory on the Atacama Plateau  –Chile -, the South Pole, and Hanla – India -. All four sites are excellent for sub-millimetre astronomy, and of these sites Mauna Kea is the most established and arguably the most accessible, while Atacama offers a large flat expanse allowing the large variable size of the ALMA telescope.


Remembering what it’s like first thing in the morning after a big night out, ALMA has rubbed it’s eyes too, blinked a few times and starred at the heavens for us, in the process producing the first stunning  series of observations. After months of testing and preparations scientists pointed a network of 12 ALMA antenna at the aptly named Antennae Galaxy, even at this early stage of construction scientists were able to see more detail than ever before. Building up to the final 66 antenna the current phase called ‘Early Science ‘ has enough time for 100 experiments, 900 have been submitted. Obviously ALMA is going to be popular amongst scientists. If this is a warm up for ALMA we are all in for quite a show. The first  test images showed two galaxies colliding, demonstrating new levels of clarity ALMA was able to show previously unseen features of the galaxies and frankly they just looked amazing.


“Even in this very early phase ALMA already outperforms all other sub-millimeter arrays. Reaching this milestone is a tribute to the impressive efforts of the many scientists and engineers in the ALMA partner regions around the world who made it possible,” said Tim de Zeeuw, Director General of ESO, the European partner in ALMA.


The battle between optical and radio telescopes continues. Astronomical instruments such as Hubble and ALMA can be broken into two distinct groups Optical telescopes and Radio Telescopes. Both are looking at distant places that existed billions of years ago. Hubble leads the way for optical technology, leap frogging most issues with Optical telescopes by shifting the entire instrument into space. Once they had fixed the incorrectly ground main mirror that is. It turns out there is only one real problem with space based telescopes, it’s a very long way to go just to do repairs. Hubble was launched with an imperfection in the main mirror, requiring NASA to straight away start planning a maintenance mission to correct the mirror, Hubble was fitted with old man, big rimmed glasses. Mind you once the corrective lenses were fitted the images were incredible. Hubble’s Deep Field images still hold the record for the furthest objects ever captured by humanities bionic eyes. ALMA holds the potential to surpass Hubble in many ways but they are still quite different beasts. Looking at different spectrum’s of energy.


ALMA is every bit as big a step forward as the day Hubble was switched on,  As we have seen from all of the great extra sensory scientific instruments such as Hubble, and SDO life out in the universe is varied and different. The results of the planet survey program’s around the world have shown that there are more exceptions than rules, we are looking out there for the first time and it’s not all turning out as expected. This makes that instruments like ALMA even more important, collecting more detailed information about life out there, fill in the blanks and assumptions with real world data.


ALMA has jumped out of the gates and made an amazing start. The first photos produced by ALMA, ‘Open Your Eyes’ are incredibly detailed with amazing colors. Here at Highpants we can’t wait to see ALMA point it’s gaze at more amazing sites out in the wider universe. What new things are waiting out there to be discovered. Like Columbus and the other early explorers of our world we are venturing into new territory, ALMA is only the first of the new, next generation mega array telescope, helping us understand galaxies and life at the large scale.

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