In Chile, the sharpest eye on Earth is being built

High on the driest desert on the planet, an army of international scientists is assembling earth’s most powerful observatory to search for the answers of the universe.

Known by its English-language initials Alma—or “soul” in Spanish—the ambitious radio-telescope array will be the first global astronomical project, a European, United States and Japanese collaboration in which Chile is participating.

For Chile’s Atacama Desert is at the centre of the world’s astronomical research, thanks to nearly perfect conditions: exceptionally clear skies and negligible humidity, the next best thing to outer space.

Atmospheric humidity will absorb the millimetre and the sub-millimetre wavelengths the scientists developing the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) will study.

The observatory is under construction in the Chilean Andes, the 5 000m-high Zona de Chajnantor, east of the village of San Pedro de Atacama, by an international collaboration of European, US and Japanese scientists.

The location gets an annual average of 10mm of rain and offers the best conditions for radio astronomy, which explores the universe via radio waves from galaxies, stars, quasars and other phenomena.

Combined with data collected by telescopes, such as the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Atacama, the world’s largest and most-advanced optical telescope, scientists believe that ALMA will be able to see deep into the origins of the universe.

When completed—in about 2011—ALMA’s will be the largest and most capable eye on the sky, expected to wield a resolution 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

ALMA will study distant galaxies, the first light of the universe, the formation of planets and stars, quasars and other celestial phenomena.

Each of the 64, 12m antenna dishes will be movable, to allow for configuration to suit the particular research.

Data collected by the antenna array will be fed into a powerful computer that will perform 16 000 million-million operations per second.

“It will be a gigantic eye, unique for its potential to receive data on the birth of the universe,” William Garnier, a spokesperson for ESO, an intergovernmental European organisation that is part of the project, said.

The budgeted cost of the project exceeds $600-million and is mainly shared by: ESO, representing 11 European countries; Associated Universities, a US organisation that unites the resources of the federal government, universities and research groups; and Japan.

Chile notably has conceded the land for ALMA.

The complexity of the project is not only complicated by the international aspect of communications, but also by the location itself.

Construction of the massive project in the barren region poses the challenges of supplying electricity, water and security for the equipment.

And the high altitude is not only difficult for humans. Some of the equipment cannot withstand the atmospheric pressure and must be operated at a distance, at a lower altitude.

“It is a project of great complexity,” a project leader, Chilean engineer Eduardo Donoso, said.

Work began in November 2003 with the construction of the first control-centre building, located 5 100m above sea level, and now has reached the second, bigger phase, at the base camp at 2 900m altitude.

The bases for the antennas will begin to take shape in the coming months, and three companies—from Europe, the US and Japan—will arm them with the antennas.

The first assembled antenna is expected to be completed by April 2007.—AFP

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