NATIONAL SCIENCE

Astronomers celebrate a decade of groundbreaking discoveries with ALMA

The ALMA Observatory recently celebrated its 10th anniversary. This mega-telescope has contributed to numerous discoveries about the cosmos and changed our understanding of the universe. Well-positioned in the Atacama Desert, it is a key component of Chile’s burgeoning astronomical infrastructure.

March 13 marked the 10th anniversary of the planet’s largest radio telescope: the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array aka ALMA. To celebrate a decade of discoveries, the facility hosted a special ceremony.

The two-hour ceremony consisted of speeches by ALMA’s directors and representatives from international partner observatories, a talk by the Chilean Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Science, and a documentary showcasing highlights from the past decade. The event was broadcasted live. 

In December 2023, ALMA will also host a science conference to commemorate its 10th anniversary.

10 years of groundbreaking discoveries

The enormous facility (ALMA is the largest and most expensive ground-based astronomical project, costing an estimated US$1.5 billion) is funded by European, North American, and East Asian partner observatories. It consists of 66 individual antennas, and was built to capture the special “rain” that falls in Chile’s northern Andean region: electromagnetic radiation, or space light, that reaches our planet after traveling through the cosmos for billions of light years. The radiation is captured in wavelengths and is valuable to astronomers because it contains information about the origins of the universe. 

ALMA sits on the Chajnantor Plateau up in the Chilean Atacama Desert, more than 5,000 meters above sea level. The Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth, is the ideal location for telescopes like ALMA. Because of these conditions, ALMA’s antennas are able to capture wavelengths from some of the earliest and furthest galaxies in the universe.  

Over the last 10 years, ALMA has changed our understanding of the cosmos and has helped researchers to unveil many secrets about other planets, stars, and galaxies. Among the observatory’s groundbreaking discoveries are the first clear pictures of planet formation, and the measurement of the most distant oxygen in space. Another milestone was reached in 2019, when the facility took part in the Event Horizon Telescope project that resulted in the first direct image of a black hole. 

Sean Dougherty, ALMA’s Director, said, “ALMA has transformed our understanding of the universe and opened new research frontiers. We are very proud of the accomplishments of the past decade and excited about the discoveries over the next ten years.” 

Astronomy’s most valuable location on earth

ALMA is not the only astronomy facility in the Atacama Desert. The altitude in combination with extremely low humidity and little light pollution make for the perfect environmental conditions to capture data from space. These unique meteorological circumstances, only matched by the isolated islands of Hawaii and the frozen continent of Antarctica, have convinced astronomical organizations from all over the world to build observatories in the region. 

Located on the same plateau as ALMA are the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment and the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory. Dozens of other facilities, large and small, exist in other parts of the desert. In addition, at the time of this writing, two other record-breaking telescopes are under construction in the Atacama Desert: the Extremely Large Telescope, slated to be the world’s largest optical/near-infrared telescope; and the Giant Magellan Telescope, consisting of the world’s largest mirror. 

In an interview with CNN Chile, Lucas Cieza, from the Institute of Astrophysical Studies at the Diego Portales University, said that Chile is currently home to 50 percent of the world’s astronomical infrastructure, and that its percentage is only increasing.

 

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