So, to some of the highest, driest mountain peaks we go.
I came to the Atacama Desert as a guest of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory along with several other science writers from around the United States. At the Operations Support Facility, located at an altitude of 9,500 feet (2,900 meters), we joined an even larger host of journalists from around the world to get a special tour of this remote facility.
The altitude was already wearing on a few of us that are used to sea level, especially when lugging around laptops and camera bags. We had a safety briefing before our trip to the high site where we were instructed on the use of our oxygen bottles and informed that a team of paramedics would be traveling with us to the high site, or Array Operations Site. This was about to get real.
ANALYSIS: ALMA Inauguration: Journey to the Atacama
Despite the occasional dizziness and mild headache once we reached the array, I actually jumped up and down and squealed with excitement upon seeing it in person. There were 54 dishes on site from North America, Europe, and East Asia, all built to the same precise performance specifications but each looking a little bit different. The surface accuracy of the gleaming 12-meter wide dishes is the width of a human hair, and the drives and motors that move them must point to an object with 0.6 arcseconds of accuracy. (That's like pointing accurately at a single person in Charlottesville, Virginia, from St. Louis. Trust me, that's a LONG drive.) Seeing the arrays in person was... beautiful.