ALMA Inauguration: Journey to the Atacama

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The entrance to the ALMA exhibit at Estacion Baquedano.

ALMA. In Spanish, it means “soul.” To radio astronomers, it is the future of millimeter wave astronomy. No, wait. I take that back. It is the telescope of the PRESENT.

I am currently in Chile for the inauguration of ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and Associated Universities Incorporated (AUI) are generously hosting twelve science journalists to attend the events on site.

This 66-dish radio interferometer will be completed by the end of the year, but first science results have already blown away the telescope’s new users in the astronomical community. With much higher sensitivity than existing facilities, as well as its location at one of the driest and highest sites in the world, ALMA is set to bring new advances to the study of planet formation, star formation, and galaxies in the early universe. Really, this telescope is all about studying things that are young, according to AUI president Ethan Schreier, in a conversation about science targets during one of the inauguration events.

ANALYSIS: ALMA Peers into the Dusty Heart of Centaurus A

Our trip began with a jaunt around Santiago, Chile, for some excellent food and a bit of sightseeing while we all got to know each other and our hosts, John Stoke, Tania Burchell, and Charles Blue of the NRAO in Charlottesville, Virginia, my former hometown.

On Monday morning, we were treated to a special presentation of what I like to call “guerrilla outreach,” or bringing science to the people where they live, work, and play. We crowded onto a metro train just at morning rush, a special train where all the cars are full of advertisements about radio astronomy. The designer of the display, Sergio Cabezon, herded most of us onto the train where we gaped at the sheer volume of people in the morning rush and the displays explaining various tidbits of information about radio telescopes such as the Green Bank Telescope, the Very Large Array, and the hometown hero, ALMA.

We eventually squeezed off the train to the metro station at Baquedano where a large mural of ALMA marked the entrance to an exhibit space that will be open until March 31. Inside, we were treated to some opening remarks by various NRAO and AUI representatives. Phil Jewell spoke of the many years of plotting and planning to build a large millimeter array as a successor to many of the smaller telescopes now in existence. Alison Peck detailed some of the scientific highlights to come from this telescope with its capability to peer through the dust-enshrouded regions of star formation or the distant glow of young galaxies in the early universe.

NEWS: Powerful Chile Telescope Opens its Eyes

Then came a surprise. A young woman fancifully dressed with replica radio dishes on her head came out and began to sing a stunning improvisation that made you truly FEEL space with a video background including radio astronomical images and a musical soundtrack that included the whine, hum, and beats of pulsars and planets. The woman’s name was Constanza Biagini, and this was only the second of three scheduled performances of this improvisation that demonstrated magnificently how art and science can be combined to inspire.

The lovely Constanza Biagini after her performance.

The exhibit will be open to the public and can be scheduled for school groups. Various gorgeous radio images from telescopes in use today, as well as pictures of the telescopes themselves, adorn a darkened room. In an interactive area, you can see yourself in an infrared camera, cast your shadow of a radio image (it has to be seen to be explained), and test your newly gained knowledge of radio telescopes. Sergio pointed out that many of the “explainers” that have been hired to staff the exhibition are physics and astronomy students in Chile who are getting their outreach training here in addition to their scientific training at university.

ANALYSIS: A Supercomputer Fit to Dominate the Cosmos

This outward and public celebration of radio astronomy is also reflected in the gorgeous astronomical images that decorate the fences around the Santiago offices of the European Southern Observatory. I also caught a brief news segment on our plane to Calama about the inauguration and opening. I wonder to myself, how can we get such things to continue beyond inauguration? How can we bring this spirit to all parts of the world?

I’ve had an amazing time, and we’ve only just left Santiago for the main attraction, the telescope itself. I’m writing this post on the plane to Calama which will be followed by a bus to San Pedro. Tonight I look forward to a physical exam that will (hopefully) clear me for the 16,500 ft (5000 m) Array Operations Site (AOS, or “high site”) where the dishes actually live. We’ll also be touring the Operations Support Facility (OSF, or “low site”) where the interferometer is controlled. I’m thrilled to be here and to share these experiences, so watch this space for more to come this week!

All photos by the author, CC BY-NC-SA