ALMA. In Spanish, it means "soul." To radio astronomers, it is the future of millimeter wave astronomy. No, wait. I take that back. It is the telescope of the PRESENT.
I am currently in Chile for the inauguration of ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and Associated Universities Incorporated (AUI) are generously hosting twelve science journalists to attend the events on site.
This 66-dish radio interferometer will be completed by the end of the year, but first science results have already blown away the telescope's new users in the astronomical community. With much higher sensitivity than existing facilities, as well as its location at one of the driest and highest sites in the world, ALMA is set to bring new advances to the study of planet formation, star formation, and galaxies in the early universe. Really, this telescope is all about studying things that are young, according to AUI president Ethan Schreier, in a conversation about science targets during one of the inauguration events.
ANALYSIS: ALMA Peers into the Dusty Heart of Centaurus A
Our trip began with a jaunt around Santiago, Chile, for some excellent food and a bit of sightseeing while we all got to know each other and our hosts, John Stoke, Tania Burchell, and Charles Blue of the NRAO in Charlottesville, Virginia, my former hometown.
On Monday morning, we were treated to a special presentation of what I like to call "guerrilla outreach," or bringing science to the people where they live, work, and play. We crowded onto a metro train just at morning rush, a special train where all the cars are full of advertisements about radio astronomy. The designer of the display, Sergio Cabezon, herded most of us onto the train where we gaped at the sheer volume of people in the morning rush and the displays explaining various tidbits of information about radio telescopes such as the Green Bank Telescope, the Very Large Array, and the hometown hero, ALMA.
We eventually squeezed off the train to the metro station at Baquedano where a large mural of ALMA marked the entrance to an exhibit space that will be open until March 31. Inside, we were treated to some opening remarks by various NRAO and AUI representatives. Phil Jewell spoke of the many years of plotting and planning to build a large millimeter array as a successor to many of the smaller telescopes now in existence. Alison Peck detailed some of the scientific highlights to come from this telescope with its capability to peer through the dust-enshrouded regions of star formation or the distant glow of young galaxies in the early universe.
NEWS: Powerful Chile Telescope Opens its Eyes
Then came a surprise. A young woman fancifully dressed with replica radio dishes on her head came out and began to sing a stunning improvisation that made you truly FEEL space with a video background including radio astronomical images and a musical soundtrack that included the whine, hum, and beats of pulsars and planets. The woman's name was Constanza Biagini, and this was only the second of three scheduled performances of this improvisation that demonstrated magnificently how art and science can be combined to inspire.