The first scientist I meet at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) telescope site is wearing a portable oxygen tank. At 16,400 feet in the Andes, he'd be unable to think clearly without the tube up his nose. He runs the observatory's brain—a supercomputer as powerful as three million laptops working together that compares light from the telescope's 66 dishes quadrillions of times every second. Everything about this place is designed for high-altitude survival. The curved roof can withstand 145mph winds. Heated blankets prevent the toilet cistern from freezing. The dishes themselves point to the sky with 0.6-arc-second accuracy, despite the winds and radical temperature swings. It's the people that are the weak link. Workers are allowed to spend only six hours a day at the ALMA "high site," the scientist explains. As I write that down, I realize I'm feeling dizzy.
A few minutes later, flat on a cot under an oxygen mask to avoid fainting, I look out the medical room's window at the lifeless, Mars-like landscape. The silvery radio dishes are engaged in a quiet ballet, swinging above the red dirt in perfect unison. Their synchrony and precision are two of the reasons ALMA is the most ambitious ground telescope ever built. Another is the observatory's unparalleled adaptability; it has the most dishes that can be trucked around to different locations. Because of all these special features, ALMA will produce images 10 times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope does.
ALMA's 66 antenna dishes work as one massive telescope, which can see sharp detail or broad features by changing its aperture from 500 feet to 10 miles. To achieve this flexibility, workers use massive trucks, each with 28 tires, to transport the 100-ton dishes. Each antenna is placed (to a fraction of a millimeter of accuracy) at one of 192 bases that have a hard line to the supercomputer nearby.
By the end of the year, when all of its dishes are online, ALMA will have 100 times the imaging resolution of any scope looking at very short radio waves, which emanate from cool, dark sources such as interstellar dust and from bright, distant galaxies. But it's already had some impressive finds. In March, astronomers discovered surprising numbers of "starburst" galaxies, where new stars were forming a billion years earlier than anyone thought. This summer, they might have found evidence of dust traps near stars that help the formation of planets, asteroids, and comets. And eventually, ALMA will watch a gas cloud spiral into the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, look for molecular signs of life on faraway worlds, and measure the location and density of the mysterious substance scientists call dark matter—all from a high desert on planet Earth.
This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Popular Science.
It is obvious why optical telescopes are installed at high altitude locations, but why radio telescopes?
Radio waves are absorbed by water vapor in the atmosphere so you want your telescopes to be as high and dry as possible. The Atacama is both. It also helps that typically people don't live in areas that are high and dry, so there's little interference from local radio sources.
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Just focus on the stars around the Orion belt. Eventually we will find our father, who art in heaven.
I am adding this comment in response to PopSci deciding to eliminate the comments section on all new articles. It occurs to me that a likely reason for eliminating the comments section is to mask the fact that the liberal writers of many of these articles are completely out of touch with actual science, and are far more interested in silencing the backlash to their inane political agenda. Very sad, and I for one will be moving on to other, more open minded sites. Farewell.
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It's cool to know that we've got to the point where observation towers on the ground can perform better than hubble. That make it much more cost effective. I cant wait for the Scientific discoveries that shall be made with this project.
On a separate note:
Good bye PopSci comments section. But as you can see the bot post above mine kinda says it all. I for one enjoyed the comments sections to see what others had to say. Some of them of course were not the greatest and some people had some really interesting things to say. This will be the last comment Tuvix makes on this site. :'( Good bye Tuvix pic your likes of will never be seen again cept' for when watching the obscure episode of Star trek voyager where Nelix and Tuvok merge into one person lol.... Keep it real it's been fun.
New user and subscriber and won't have the chance to contribute. :-/ Anyway, this article was incredibly interesting, and I really loved seeing images of how the telescopes are moved. I can't wait for more images to come out of this array.
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