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Americas Now 20120617 Reaching for the Stars

06-21-2012 15:44 BJT

By Daniel Schweimler

An international astronomy facility that partners Europe, North America and East Asia is located along the Pacific Coast in Chile. Sound “far out”?It is. On a 600-mile strip of land in the Atacama Desert, is an area that is twenty million years old.  It is a region that is so dry its average rainfall is only one millimeter a year. And so otherworldly looking, it has been used as a location for shooting scenes from Mars. Daniel Schweimler transports us to a revolutionary observatory called ALMA, where a synthesis of visions, is reaching for the stars.

The ALMA space observatory in northern Chile is only half finished, but it is already producing images like the sky around the star Fomalhaut in the constellation of PiscisAustrinus – the Southern Fish, which is 25 light years from Earth and surrounded by a huge disc of dust. It is a major breakthrough in helping astronomers to understand how stars and planets, including our own, are formed.

These massive antennas were brought from Europe, North America, and East Asia to be assembled here, deep in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, a long way from anywhere. The desert’s altitude and the fact that it is known to be one of the driest places on Earth, make it, as site manager RieksJager explains, the ideal spot for astronomers to see farther into space than many would have ever thought possible.
“The location where the antennas will be used at the observatory is 5,000 meters above sea level. So that, combined with a very dry atmosphere gives us the perfect conditions for our observations”.

Jager says ALMA will be able to look at the earliest formation of galaxies and stars, giving astronomers a better understanding of the creation of our own planet Earth.

“It’s one of the basic questions in astronomy and it is a question that many people have always asked, even the people that lived here 2,000 years ago, they looked at the stars and they wondered: ‘Where does it all come from? What’s the origin?’ We’re now very much more advanced and as usual in science you solve a few questions and you get 10 new questions. So it will keep going on and going further and further to the beginning of the universe”.

ALMA is unlike traditional observatories using visual telescopes. Eventually 66 of these antennas, each weighing more than a hundred tons, will work together to read the millimeter and sub-millimeter radio and infrared waves in space. They will see beyond dust clouds that hinder the view of visual telescopes. Italian astronomer Dr. Gianni Marconi says there’s never been a project like this.

“We hope to find what we don’t know, essentially. We know what we expect to find. This is the basis on which every scientific project of this type is built because when you plan something like that it is expensive. You say ‘ok’ we will observe that, that and that. We know where we go.When you open a window, you never know how much further you will see to the horizon. Maybe we will discover something that was not in our plan and this will open a completely new line of investigation for the future”.

Scientists and technicians come from around the world to work with their Chilean counterparts in a truly international collaboration, where everyone has a clearly defined role to play. One of which is electrical engineer, Claudio Alvarez. He explains the process how antennas relay back information.

“Behind each of the antennas is this device which receives the space signals. It’s the first device that receives the signals that are then processed by the computers”.

It is here atless than 3,000meters above sea level, where it is still possible to breathe fairly easily, that these antennas are assembled, checked, and prepared to be moved to their final resting place much higher up the mountain, much closer to the distant galaxies they’ll be observing.

There are other space observatories around the world but nothing as big or as ambitious as this. Chilean Jorge Ramirez is one of hundreds of technicians working on a unique project.

“Conditions to assemble the antennas, besides the weather up there,are not very stable, sometimes it snows, and you have very windy conditions, very low temperatures and very high altitude. It’s not a very good environment in which to work at”.

More than half of the antennas are completed and are busy looking at the stars. The project, which started in 2003, is due to be completed by next year, when all 66 antennas have been assembled and brought up this mountain to their final resting place on the Chajnantor plateau.

Here at 5,000meters above sea level, it is bitterly cold and breathing is difficult. It is a far way from humankind and much closer to space. This is where it all happens, the place from which the planet Earth casts its eye millions of light years into deep space and into the heart of the unknown.

The information captured by the antennas is stored here in the correlator room in these huge plates. It is situated in an oxygenated building and cared for by technician, Juan Carlos Gaticaand Engineer Daniel Herrera. He says the ALMA project will help them to see stars and planets they already know with greater clarity, while also delving further into space than they ever dreamed possible.

“That’s what the project is meant for. At the moment we’re at the half-full capacity. We have over 50% of the antennas and we’re having quite good results. So we’re hoping that by the end we’ll have much better quality and further distance which will give us other clues about the universe”.

These antennas carefully placed and directed, will provide an unprecedented ability to study how stars and planets were formed, revealing details of young, still-forming stars and a spectacular insight into how our own planet and solar system were born. The ALMA observatory is pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. There is a tangible excitement here with scientists, astronomers from around the world all wanting to be part of what is truly a remarkable project.

But will ALMA be able to solve a question that we all want to ask– astronomers and non-astronomers alike– are we alone? Is there other life out there? The results from the ALMA project say astronomers have already been impressive. With each newly completed and installed antenna, our eye into deep space will become even more focused and far-reaching and who knows what we’ll see when the ALMA observatory is fully up and running.


Editor:James |Source: CNTV

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