The Atacama Large Millimetre Array, also known as ALMA, officially opened for business on Wednesday. According to Tim de Zeeuw, director general of ESO, Alma was first imagined by Sir Fred Hoyle, the English astronomer and mathematician, in 1973 when he wrote about it in his novel The Inferno.
Nearly 40 years since then, the telescope is on the verge of completion. Currently still under construction, the telescope will eventually feature precisely 66 antennae which will collect radio-waves that will be able to construct images of space. We will be able to look farther into space than previously imagined, detect light normally invisible to the naked eye and see to “the edge of time.” This was all made possible through the work of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a successful partnership between organisations from Europe, North America and East Asia as well as the $1.4 billion that was spent over the ten years it took ALMA to materialise.
The array is situated in close proximity to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile, it is considered one of the world’s driest places, and for a good cause. The reason for its placement on the edge of the 16,400-foot Chajnantor Plateau, is due to the fact that the area is subject to extreme arid conditions. The desert has close to no humidity sitting at an altitude of 5 000m. According to News24, scientists originally believed that their ultrasensitive humidity testing equipment was faulty due to the surprisingly low humidity readings, which is vital in achieving precise results. ALMA astronomer, Gianni Marconi, said the following in regards to the necessity of low humidity:
What is so very special about this place is that, right here above our heads, there is virtually no water vapour. There is just so little that whatever light is emitted from a heavenly body, galaxy or star, it gets here with no interference.
Despite this, ALMA has been equipped to endure all weather conditions, even in the rare occasion of snow fall.
At this point you are probably wondering what all the fuss is about and what can this really big, expensive telescope actually do. According to Thijs de Graaw, director at ALMA:
The scientific community wants to use Alma in its research on star formation, the birth of planets and not just what is happening in our solar system, but also on how the system was created after the Big Bang.
Furthermore, he states that it is quite a revolutionary advancement in terms of millimetric and sub-millimetric waves since it is able to “look through clouds of dust and focus on the formation of stars themselves.” This is not capable with any other previously reputable telescopes.
This is all very exciting, however Carlos De Breuck, an ALMA observer, has commented on the radicalness of the innovation, “It’s a complete game-changer and we actually don’t know what we will be seeing”.
Overall, ALMA is a pretty exciting concept that could help us learn more about the way the universe was formed. If anything, it takes magical photographs of space.